A Conservative party victory in the 2019 general election would see county councils across England being given the opportunity to grab more powers from Whitehall. The Devolution White Paper (promised in October’s Queen’s Speech) signals a renewed energy in favour of devolution to English local authorities. Boris Johnson’s government has pledged ‘structural and institutional reform’ with more elected mayors and an increase in the number of devolution deals.
Currently 37% of residents in England and 50% in the North are now served by city region mayors; a model that the Conservatives remain attached to.
Options being considered include the creation of new combined authorities covering county council boundaries. These would see an elected mayor, with similar powers to those currently enjoyed by Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham.
The second option would be the creation of unitary authorities covering a county council area, again with similar powers to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.
Chancellor Sajid Javid pledged to ‘level up devolution’ in his speech at the Conservative party conference and the white paper would be a major step forward.
With the pattern of local government in England remaining complex and the distribution of functions varying from region to region, any attempt to streamline decision-making is likely to be welcomed by investors who just want to know how decisions are made and by whom.
But any attempt to ‘impose’ devolution on reluctant authorities where identity is sometimes more important than governance structures would be a recipe for the sort of delays to devolution we have seen in Yorkshire over recent years.
It remains to be seen whether county councils will come forward to take up the opportunity and whether they become the economic successes that the Conservative party hopes.