IPPR warns counties could miss out on devo deals

16 Nov 15

There is a “clear case” for devolution to English counties but the government’s insistence on a mayoral model could cut these areas off from additional powers, an Institute for Public Policy Research report has warned.

Examining the government’s devolution plans, the Empowering Counties report noted that counties represent half the country’s population and are only just behind London in terms of businesses created per 10,000 of population.

There has been a surge of interest in devolution from counties as the authorities see opportunities to boost their regional economies and transform public services, the report said.

However, chancellor George Osborne proscription of a “one-size-fits-all” model for devolving powers with directly elected mayors still being demanded for county regions, could see counties miss out.

Treasury minister Jim O'Neill previously told Public Finance the government will only offer limited devolution to areas that do not adopt elected mayors.

Such an approach risks cutting councils off from devolution, IPPR North director Ed Cox warned.

“Counties need devolution every bit as much as the big cities and, with the right support and empowerment, there is a massive opportunity to unleash their economic potential,” he said.

“Devolution deals can drive economic development, but the process needs far more understanding and flexibility from government to work for the counties, who have different needs and organisational structures.

“The danger otherwise is a one-size-fits-all approach to mayors means huge swathes of the country are cut off from the benefits of devolution, stymieing their potential to grow and reform public services.”

In order to ensure that devolution deals, some of which are likely to be announced in next week’s Spending Review, IPPR called on government to accept that county devolution requires a different approach to cities.

Directly elected mayors are more suited to city combined authorities, the report highlighted, with agreements to create the post having been reached in Greater Manchester, the Sheffield city region and the North East and Tees Valley regions.

In complex multi-tiered counties with a small number of different centres of economic activity and little collective cultural or political identity, the posts should not be required if existing democratic arrangements are fit for purpose, IPPR concluded.
Instead, counties should involve the public and local enterprise partnerships in developing devolution deals, and open themselves up to greater accountability without the need for a mayor.

The report was launched at the County Councils Network’s annual conference. CCN devolution spokesman Martin Hill urged the government to not miss opportunities presented in counties when agreeing devolution deals across the country.            

“Counties and their partners are developing strong models to underpin ambitious local deals, but government and local areas have more to do.

“Government needs to stop being city-focused and ensure that our counties also benefit from devolution in order to boost their regional economies and transform public services.”

While some counties may feel a metro-mayor is suitable for their area, the government must be open to developing alternatives, he added.

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