4 February 2022

Devolution to England’s counties is essential to levelling up

By Archie Hill

Levelling up has become something of a political Rorschach Test – a project of such vaunting ambition that it can mean all things to all people (even the World Health Organisation had something to say about this week’s White Paper).

But despite the lack of consensus on what levelling up actually means, one area where there are undoubtedly encouraging signs is devolution. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that levelling up started life as a humble Devolution White Paper, which was then subsumed into something altogether larger and more labyrinthine.

Expanding and deepening local devolution in England is the essential first step to unlocking greater regional growth and prosperity, and, as the Government rightly acknowledges, this means empowering county areas. The focus on counties in the White Paper was particularly welcome: long overlooked by Government, they are nevertheless a vital part of our political and cultural landscape. 

Over a year ago, Henham Strategy and the County Councils Network (CCN) launched a report, ‘Making Counties Count’, which set out the case for greater clarity, consistency and fairness in giving counties the powers which our large cities already enjoy. This week’s White Paper was, at long last, a visible step in the right direction to help support the half of England’s population who live in those county areas. The notion of ‘Whitehall knows best’ has, one hopes, finally had its day.

Our report argued that if the Government wants to stand by its 2019 manifesto commitments around local devolution and levelling up, then counties are the obvious place to start. Not only are many people deeply attached to their counties, but county council leaders are far better placed than Whitehall to understand and respond to particular place-based challenges and growth opportunities. 

Indeed, as the White Paper put it: 

‘To date, devolution deals have typically been based on city-region geographies…It is important that new devolution deals are based on geographies that are locally recognisable in terms of identity, place and community, as well as being sensible economic areas that join up where people live and work. 

‘On that basis, to access more powers, any future devolution deals should be agreed over a sensible functional economic area and/or a whole county geography.’

All of which will be music to the ears of county councillors, who play a vital but often unheralded role in supporting and championing local communities, whether responding to the Covid-19 pandemic or ensuring provision of social care. 

The White Paper’s ambition is welcome. Nevertheless these are only the first steps; we must still go further and faster on the local devolution agenda.

It would have been good to see a more widespread approach, rather than persisting with a piecemeal system of County Deals. Then there was the promise of a ‘new English devolution framework’ – which first appeared back in the 2017 Conservative manifesto, but there remains little clarity on what this will involve.  And it is important that new ‘levelling up directors’ and the model of county ‘governors’ do not just become another layer of local government bureaucracy. 

Now is the time for the Government to be ambitious and accelerate their plans for local devolution. Giving all county areas the same powers available to cities is key to ensuring our post-pandemic recovery is shared across all regions of the UK. It’s encouraging that the White Paper recognises this, but Michael Gove can’t afford to let this focus get lost in the all-consuming activity of ‘levelling up’ – and neither can the country.

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Archie Hill is Senior Researcher at Henham Strategy.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.