Report

Unleashing counties’ role in levelling up England

Paul Dossett Paul Dossett

With place-based growth at the forefront of the government’s policy agenda, our new report, produced in collaboration with the County Councils Network, underlines the vital role that county authorities have in the successful implementation of this strategy. Counties are the places this growth will need to occur and a vital instrument for driving the change through investment, influence and action.

It is clear in our analysis that county authorities face complex challenges across business, living standards and infrastructure, where the ‘gap’ to the national average is often significant. In some places, this is exacerbated by the variability in performance that exists within county authority areas.

These differences underline the danger of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to policy or programmes across county areas. Rather, they suggest action that combines an intimate knowledge of place, with a joined-up approach to delivery and the freedom and powers to make decisions across a broader spatial scale.

The following recommendations seek to build on the effective work that has already taken place, while also addressing a number of the challenges that are clearly holding back growth. It must, however, be noted that for the following recommendations to be effective, it is crucial that local government funding is addressed in a long-term and strategic way.

  • Rather than focus on the ‘north-south divide’, government should identify where the ‘gap’ is greatest – either to the national average or between different places –and focus investment decisions on closing that gap and ‘levelling up’ local economies.
  • Funding processes need to be streamlined and simplified. New funding should be focused on building capacity to deliver strategic growth priorities. This could lead to increased efficiencies, if fragmented funding is rationalised into fewer funding streams, or in a single funding pot, with the result that more money is actually spent on front-line delivery.
  • The Devolution White Paper must consider how devolution of powers to county authorities could assist in levelling-up the country. This should include devolving significant budgets and powers down to councils, shaped around existing county authorities and local leadership, but recognising the additional complexity in two-tier local authority areas and whether structural changes are required.
  • Growth boards should be established in every county authority area. As part of this, a statutory duty should be placed on county authorities to convene and co-ordinate key stakeholders, which could include neighbouring authorities. These growth boards should be governed by a national framework that would cover the agreed ‘building blocks’ for growth: powers, governance, funding and capacity.
  • Growth boards should be insight and data-led. Learning from the local industrial strategy evidence bases, growth boards should develop a clear, consistent and common evidence base that identifies strengths, opportunities and challenges for the place and data-driven approaches to identifying priorities, solutions and the appraisal of investment.
  • Planning responsibilities should be reviewed with responsibility for strategic planning given to county authorities. In line with the recently published final report of the “Building Better, Building Beautiful” Commission, 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.
  • The National Infrastructure Commission should ensure greater consideration of the infrastructure requirements in non-metropolitan areas. National infrastructure assessments could consider how better investment in infrastructure outside metropolitan areas could link to wider growth-related matters that would help to level up the economy across the country.
  • Skills provision and growth need to be aligned. At the heart of this sits a need to ensure that the current and future workforce have the skills required to deliver future growth. The Government has committed, in their 2019 election manifesto, to a £3-billion National Skills Fund and local government must play a key role in how this funding is allocated to meet skills needs in a locality.
  • Review structures and powers to ensure a greater degree of co-terminosity around places. This review would ensure that decisions about a place are being made about a consistent place. It would remove the need for different conversations and streamline the approach to making decisions.
  • Bring talent together. Currently talent and expertise are spread across multiple organisations within a place. Joining up key growth teams and pooling budgets at a county scale will grow capacity and create more effective and better-resourced delivery teams.

Watch our video in collaboration with the County Councils Network, this provides insight into place-based growth through the lens of county authority areas.

 

To find out more about the opportunities for counties in relation to the government’s agenda, contact Paul Dossett, Head of Local Government.