In our latest report, commissioned by the County Councils Network, we explore the county authorities’ role as a ‘place leader’. Rob Turner summarises the report and sets out 10 recommendations to demonstrate how county authority areas, and other local authorities can be empowered to drive forward the UK’s place-based recovery.
Earlier this year, we produced a report in collaboration with the County Councils Network (CCN), underlining the vital role of county authorities in the implementation of the government’s agenda around ‘levelling up’ England. The report demonstrated that counties are a vital instrument for driving place-based change through investment, influence and action.
COVID-19 has had significant social, health and economic impacts. This has changed behaviours, disrupted markets and placed enormous pressure on public services. The scale of the economic impact has demanded a fundamental rethink around economic development and growth.
Despite new wider uncertainties, county authority areas remain crucial to the UK’s place-based economic recovery. Our latest report builds on the detailed analysis and findings of the previous report, and presents a new economic analysis, indicating the potential challenges as a result of the pandemic. It also highlights how more needs to be done if the full potential of county authority areas in supporting the economic recovery is to be realised.
This report calls for a bolder and braver approach, with a series of recommendations for how county authority areas can be empowered to drive forward the UK’s place-based recovery.
10 recommendations for place-based recovery
The recommendations are an evolution of those identified within our previous report, with the aim of supporting an economic and social place-based recovery, as well as enabling a programme of long-term growth that addresses spatial imbalances and inequalities.
We've outlined the following 10 recommendations for achieving place-based recovery:
1 Prompt, targeted investment in place-based recovery
It is vital that county authorities receive prompt, targeted investment decisions by central and local government. COVID-19 has heightened longstanding inequalities that need to be addressed by a place-based recovery, particularly at a local level.
So investment decisions are needed that focus on addressing place-based vulnerabilities, and help to ‘narrow the gap’ between traditional core growth areas and those more on the periphery, spanning coastal, rural and industrial areas
2 Simpler funding processes
Funding processes need to be streamlined, simplified and devolved to help support a faster recovery. New funding should be focused on both immediate place-based recovery actions and building capacity to deliver strategic growth priorities. Rationalising existing fragmented funding streams will enable this to happen more efficiently.
3 Devolution of power
An effective, green, long-term place-based recovery at a local level requires devolution of powers to local authorities. The devolution and local recovery white paper is currently expected to be published in the autumn. It should include devolving significant budgets and powers to councils, so that they can ensure that recovery actions are adjusted to specific local needs, and that investment is made into opportunities for growth. New powers and budgets will facilitate quicker and more effective delivery.
4 Rethink new unitary authorities
In considering greater unitarisation of authorities, both the scale and nature of these authorities needs careful thought. If the new authorities do not have the right scale in relation to economic geography it will be challenging for these authorities to act strategically and it will limit the capacity and capability to drive place-based growth.
5 Address skills gaps
Skills provision and growth will need to be aligned in light of coronavirus. As new trends and behaviours emerge, local authorities should analyse whether current and future workforces have the right skills in place to deliver future growth.
This likely means accelerating digital and technology skills, but also covers a much broader range of growth needs and skill levels from climate change to housing provision and the delivery of core infrastructure.
The geographic scale of county authorities provides an opportunity to think strategically about the commissioning of skills for places. For this to succeed, some skills funding would need to be devolved to this spatial scale, as well as to employers.
6 Establish growth boards
Growth boards should be established in every county authority area to lead on local, green, place-based recovery and to ensure that there is capacity to deliver locally. They need to be politically led with a statutory duty placed on county authorities to convene and coordinate key stakeholders.
The growth boards should be governed by a national framework, which would cover the agreed ‘building blocks’ for recovery and growth – powers, governance, funding and capacity. Forming an alliance with local development corporations and ‘powerhouse’ groupings, where they exist, will further enable delivery on the ground.
7 Insight and data-led actions
Growth boards should be insight and data-led. Learning from the local industrial strategy evidence bases, they should develop a clear, consistent and common evidence base that identifies strengths, opportunities and challenges for place-based recovery. They should also develop data-driven approaches to identifying priorities, solutions and appraisal of investment.
8 Create a single point of contact
Work with the existing growth delivery teams in government to create a single point of contact for each region and the areas within it, thereby removing the need for different conversations and creating a streamlined approach to making decisions.
This, in turn, would increase the speed at which decisions are made and actions are taken. It would also make it easier for national bodies to consider what impact their recommendations and priorities have at the local level for place-based recovery.
9 Review planning processes
Planning responsibilities should be reviewed with responsibility for strategic spatial planning given to the appropriate scale of authority in the devolution context.
The focus of this review should be on the dual priorities of simplifying the planning process and accelerating delivery. Government should consider how county authorities, along with neighbouring unitary authorities within the county boundary, could take a more material role in the strategic and spatial planning process.
This will enable a more co-ordinated approach in delivering the infrastructure required – education, digital and physical connectivity – to both support place-based recovery and lay the foundations for longer-term sustainable growth.
It would also give additional powers that will help areas to leverage extra funds, convene and align strategically, and ultimately deliver new infrastructure and homes at pace. It is a faster pace of delivery that will drive further savings as places see the dividend of growth sooner.
10 Place-based recovery in non-metropolitan areas
Giving greater consideration to additional infrastructure requirements in non-metropolitan areas will help address any barriers to levelling up the wider economy. This is particularly the case given the economic and social vulnerabilities facing county authorities as a result of coronavirus.
National infrastructure assessments could consider how better investment in infrastructure outside metropolitan areas could link to the wider recovery and national 'levelling up' agenda. There is a need to address the gaps in funding identified by the county infrastructure plans. And greater consideration should also be given to the role of planning obligations, planning gain and locally led delivery vehicles, such as development corporations or similar.
For more information on place-based recovery, contact Rob Turner.