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The County Councils Network's manifesto proposals for devolution and local growth outline the need for the new government to unleash the economic potential of county authorities and the benefits of turbocharging county devolution. The incoming government must maintain county geographies and their governance as the building blocks of non-metropolitan devolution, while rapidly expanding the range of economic levers and fiscal freedoms available to all areas. Alongside this, it needs to make regional investment fairer between cities and counties, while consolidating and streamlining growth funding.

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jobs are located in county areas, 42% of total employment in England
of all businesses are in county areas, some 12 million
county areas have agreed a devolution deal over the past 20 months
is the increase in GVA that could be generated through full devolution to counties
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Our priorities

Our Vision

Over the past decade, progress on devolution has shown that devolving powers and funding from Whitehall to councils has proven benefits that empower local leaders to make decisions closer to the people and businesses they affect, while providing greater freedoms and flexibilities to drive local growth.

The case for empowering local government to lead on economic development, while addressing regional inequalities, has only been made stronger in the face of the economic hardship that has become embedded in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and cost-of-living crisis.

County authorities are uniquely placed, as strategic authorities, to respond to these opportunities and challenges. Counties are the key local institution in placed-based growth, delivering billions each year in growth-related expenditure and capital investment; and pivotal with their influencing and leadership role as convener, facilitator, and vision setter, working in tandem with the private sector.

The evidence is clear as to what a more ambitious programme of devolution could bring in delivering more jobs, higher growth and better public services. As previous research by the network has shown, empowering county authorities through full devolution could create 1m new jobs over 10 years, generate an extra £26bn for the national economy, and deliver £11.7bn in savings per year over a five-year period.

Priority 1

Devolution & reform

County Councils Network members know from experience that previous attempts to deliver devolution outside of our metro areas were complicated, burdensome and often characterised by disputes between councils. Bottom-up definitions of what constituted a ‘functional economic area’, alongside the inflexibility of the original Combined Authority model, resulted in endless local debates, friction between partners and the breakdown of deals.

But through the commitment to County Deals in the Levelling Up White Paper and Devolution Framework, alongside the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act, we now have a new, more practical, approach to spreading devolution to county and rural areas. By recognising the importance of whole county geographies as the building blocks for devolution outside our major cities, it celebrated our historic counties and embraced their economic potential and coherence. For the first time, it offered the opportunity to devolve powers directly to county and unitary authorities in England, speeding-up and simplifying the process. Rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all approach of the Metro Mayor model, it created new, less bureaucratic, upper-tier Combined County Authorities (CCAs) more suited to complex two-tier areas.

Over the past two years, the County Councils Network has been working closely with the first wave of County Deals and new CCAs. This new approach to devolution has provided the clarity and framework to truly unlock devolution to our great counties, and is facilitating more effective local collaboration between county, unitary and  district authorities – resulting in devolution deals being agreed with 15 member councils in just 20 months.

That’s why the County Councils Network’s proposals below are clear that the next government should build on, not replace, this approach to devolution. The geographical parameters and governance arrangements contained in the Devolution Framework should therefore be retained to ensure every county area has an ambitious devolution deal in place as soon as possible. Alongside this, early clarity on the future path of structural reform is important. If an incoming government chooses to pursue reform, a clear and transparent set of criteria should be established to ensure a coherent and structured process that can create authorities of the necessary size and scale.

Priority 2

Powers, Freedoms & Flexibilities

The Devolution Framework has undoubtedly provided the geographical parameters and governance arrangements for spreading devolution to county and rural areas. However, turbocharging devolution and the local growth agenda requires a genuine two-way negotiation process with cross-departmental buy-in to devolve the most ambitious set of powers possible, while brigading the separate funding streams which support the building blocks of growth into a single funding pot for local areas.

‍Too often in recent devolution negotiations, this approach has been lacking. The scope of powers, freedoms and flexibilities on offer has been restricted by a lack of ambition and Whitehall resistance. Moreover, while some progress has been made, there remains a prioritisation of the metro-mayors and city devolution: meaning only a small number of urban Combined Authorities have so far benefited from commitments to ‘Level 4’  deals and consolidated multi-year funding arrangements.

County Councils Network member councils are rightly ambitious for their areas and want to ensure that their deals can go above and beyond the scope of powers on offer through the Devolution Framework to bring true parity between city regions and county areas. Alongside this, the County Councils Network wants to work with government to deliver on powers that have thus far been largely unexplored through all existing devolution deals, including strategic planning and net-zero. Greater powers must also be matched by genuine fiscal devolution, recognising that the UK remains one of the most fiscally centralised countries in the western world.

The County Councils Network proposals below set out the need to extend the scope of devolved powers on offer, with the negotiation of more extensive powers, flexibilities and funding that could deliver more ambitious proposals around skills and employment, strategic planning, transport, fiscal devolution, net-zero and public service reform. To access the most extensive powers, there also needs to be more flexibility on the leadership requirements of devolved governance models. Although a directly elected mayor/leader of a county council, unitary authority or CCA provides a more suitable alternative to the existing metro-mayor model, county devolution still needs to be pragmatic, and reflect the political complexity of agreeing a change in governance model locally.

Priority 3

Local growth & Investment

The County Councils Network has long called for the government to empower county authorities to unleash their areas economic potential, ensuring that policies aimed at driving local growth and tackling regional inequalities do not bypass them. Despite the focus on the north-south divide, counties suffer from the very economic weaknesses that all political parties have committed to addressing if they are to form the next administration.

Research by EY for CCN in 2023 showed that Gross Added Value in city regions is forecast to grow by 6.7% (£60bn) between 2019 and 2025, compared to a much more sluggish rate of 3% (£29bn) in county areas. Separate analysis by EY has also shown that between 2018-2021 foreign direct investment (FDI) was 7.3 per capita in counties, almost half the ratio of projects secured by the nine urban combined authorities (13.2 per capita) and seven times less than London’s ratio of 50 FDI projects per capita.

Despite many county economies lagging behind other regions of England, CCN research has also shown that councils in London were able to spend over 50% more per person compared to counties (£506 compared to £333) on growth related infrastructure and support such as roads, junctions, enterprise parks, and business support, while the core cities were able to invest 35% (£448 per person).

While the strategic role of county and unitary authorities in local growth has been recognised through the devolution framework and the recent transfer of Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) functions to upper-tier  councils, in other areas of policy – such as the Levelling Up, Towns, High-Streets and Shared Prosperity funds – the role of county councils has been overlooked and underutilised.

The County Councils Network proposals below therefore set out that an incoming government should seek to address the imbalances in regional investment between counties and city regions, while upper-tier tier authorities must be empowered to lead on strategic economic planning and delivery. This should be supported by reassessment of the funding, powers and functions relating to economic growth of different local authority types and regional bodies, alongside the consolidation of growth funds and removal of competitive bidding.

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our proposals

Devolution & Local Growth

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Devolution framework
Maintaining counties as the building blocks of non-metropolitan devolution
  • The incoming government must maintain the focus on devolution to ensure every county area that wants one has an ambitious devolution deal by 2027. The incoming government must seek to complete all remaining legislative stages for recently agreed Mayoral, Combined County Authority and County Deals.
  • The geographical parameters and governance arrangements contained in the devolution framework should be retained. This should specifically include the Combined County Authority model and constituent membership arrangements, alongside devolving directly to county and unitary authorities where the formation of a Combined County Authority is not required.
  • Any future non-metropolitan devolution deal should be based on whole county geographies rather than functional economic areas, with no governance arrangements cutting across county boundaries.
  • To extend and deepen devolution, there should be no requirement to adopt a directly elected mayor or leader as a condition of accessing the highest level of devolved powers and funding.  
  • Explore the opportunities to review and strengthen county and unitary council constitutions, in respect of the Leader and Cabinet model, to strengthen arrangements to reflect key elements of the directly elected mayor model within a council context, as well as ensuring that commensurate scrutiny and oversight structures and processes are in place.
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Regional investment
Addressing the imbalances in regional investment and removing competitive bidding processes
  • The government must ensure that efforts to improve regional productivity and economic growth maximise the potential of county areas, while retaining a commitment to reducing regional inequalities.  
  • The government must address the imbalances in regional investment, in particular the disparity between county areas and major cities, aiming to close the gap in per-head spending by different council types on revenue and capital spend on economic growth services.
  • The National Infrastructure Commission should establish a board of rural commissioners examining the needs of rural areas and putting forward recommendations as part of the National Infrastructure Assessment.
  • Review and consolidate the multiple funding streams to support economic growth and regeneration, alongside removing costly and time-consuming competitive bidding processes. Larger and more flexible local funds should be consolidated into a single long-term fund operating at a strategic level for all local areas.
  • The government should fully review the delivery and future of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund by 2025 when it represents a more significant resource, particularly its operation in two-tier areas.
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Devolved powers
Extending and deepening devolved economic powers, freedoms and flexibilities in county areas
  • The government should seek to expand the scope of powers and funding available through the devolution framework. This will require more effective cross-Departmental buy-in to the devolutionary process.
  • Government should offer areas the opportunity to be a ‘rural trailblazer’, recognising the unique issues related to service delivery and cost in such areas. At present all the devolution trailblazers are predominantly urban but the opportunities and challenges in rural areas differ from those in urban areas.  
  • Explore the potential of fiscal devolution to both deepen and extend wider devolution, exploring the full range of tax devolution. Political parties must engage with findings of forthcoming research by Grant Thornton for the County Councils Network on the options for, and impact of, fiscal devolution and freedoms in county areas.
  • Building on the devolution of the adult education budget, government must reinforce the role of county and unitary authorities as the primary facilitators of local growth by accelerating the devolution of place-based, integrated skills and employment services within devolution deals.  
  • The effectiveness of the Apprenticeship Levy could be improved if it were retained locally with the freedom to spend according to local need, and a future government should seek to devolve control over the levy through devolution deals.
  • Mandate strategic planning across county areas to unlock growth and ensure that housing and infrastructure are planned together. The new government should build on proposals outlined in the report by the County Councils Network (see here).
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Strategic economic planning
Empowering upper-tier authorities to realise their economic potential and revive local economies
  • Continue to fully exploit the leadership and strategic role of county and unitary authorities in place-based growth, building on the transfer of LEP functions to upper-tier councils.  
  • At the Spending Review provide a sufficient, long-term funding settlement for LEP functions recently transferred to upper-tier councils, including growth hubs.
  • Any future initiatives, such as new local growth plans or strategies, must ensure these are led by upper-tier authorities, and be undertaken across whole county geographies - giving equal weight to the needs of rural areas alongside cities and towns within these areas.
  • The new government should undertake an assessment of the division of responsibility between different tiers of local government and regional bodies in relation to the funding, powers and functions designed to facilitate local economic growth to ensure their delivery is optimised.
  • In delivering the remaining stages of the Levelling Up, Towns and High Street Funds, the incoming government should strengthen the role of county councils. All future targeted investment funds should be coordinated through upper-tier councils, Combined County Authorities or Combined Authorities, working closely with district councils where they exist.
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Local government reorganisation
A national framework and criteria for any reform of councils’ structures
  • The incoming government should provide clarity on the future path of structural reform as soon as possible upon entering government and ensure that it is not a condition of securing a devolution deal. 
  • If the government chooses to expand structural reform opportunities, it should publish clear and transparent criteria for councils wishing to explore this. This should include confirmation of a minimum population limit ‘substantially more’ than 300,000 with no upper population limit; ensure proposals offer better public service delivery across the area and minimise disaggregation of care services; and provides the thresholds and tests for local approval.    
  • Set out a framework to encourage reform to the existing two-tier structure and greater collaboration in specific service areas where it makes sense to do so, including the options for the functional reform of powers between the tiers.
  • The government should ensure that it does not mandate the transfer of integrated fire services from county authorities to Police and Crime Commissioners.
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Net-zero transition & green growth
Giving councils the tools to deliver green growth and attract private investment
  • The next government should ensure councils are central to their plans to invest in, and deliver, green growth and the net-zero transition, providing greater powers and tailored interventions in county and rural areas. Political parties must engage with findings of forthcoming research by EY for the County Councils Network, which will explore these issues in detail.    
  • Put in place a national climate action framework with policy, regulatory, and investment certainty up to 2050, with set milestones and a clear role for councils leading local climate action. 
  • Provide all councils with adequate and stable core funding to take forward climate action across their own services; multi-year place-based funding allocations to lead decarbonisation across their areas and support to secure greater private investment into local climate action. 
  • Introduce a local climate action test ensuring all government policy and funding decisions – from housing to skills - contribute to local climate action. 

Our Evidence Base

Research Reports & Key Findings
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Role of County Authorities in Place-Based Growth

This report analysed the economic challenge in county areas, using a variety of metrics. It found that county authorities in those locations are key players in boosting productivity, but they need more tools to have a more effective role in growth.  

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Key findings:

  • Between 2014 and 2019, a total of 30 out of 36 county areas had workplace productivity levels below the England average. And those areas have witnessed sluggish business growth – 7.9% - in that timeframe, compared to 15.1% for the rest of the country.
  • Over the same period, the report found no north-south divide when it comes to GVA growth. The areas that experienced some of the lowest rates of economic growth are Herefordshire (5.3%), Oxfordshire (5.6%), Cumbria (8.2%), Gloucestershire  (9.2%), and Wiltshire (9.7%) – showing that one size fits all policies will not work.
  • Councils in London are able to spend over 50% more per person compared to counties (£506 compared to £333) on growth related initiatives such as roads, enterprise parks, and business support. The largest cities in England, the core cities, are able to invest 35% more than counties (£448 per person).
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Global Britain, Global Counties report cover

Global Counties: Attracting Foreign Direct Investment

This report provided a detailed analysis of where foreign investment is concentrated in England. It set out what measures can be taken to ensure that overseas investment is more evenly distributed across the country.

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Key findings:

  • Between 2018 and 2021, there were 7.3 foreign direct investment projects secured per capita in county areas, which is half the ratio of projects (13.4 per capita) secured in the nine combined authority areas (such as the major cities in the North and West Midlands) and significantly less than London (50 per capita). 
  • Foreign direct investment created more jobs (40,169) in county areas over the last four years than London’s total (39,357) - despite the capital attracting almost 1,000 extra projects. On average, foreign investment in county areas generate 83 jobs each – higher than any Combined Authority and London.
  • With business, professional, and digital accounting for a smaller proportion of foreign direct investment, the analysis shows county and rural areas have a major comparative advantage in transport and logistics, agri-food and manufacturing; with counties accounting for 42% of all England’s foreign investment in these sectors.
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Coming soon

Fiscal Devolution in Counties

This forthcoming report by Grant Thornton will analyse the options for fiscal devolution in county areas. It will assess the potential impact of a range of fiscal devolution measures and innovations if they are implemented in county areas.

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Areas of focus:

  • Examining the differences between fiscal devolution; fiscal freedom and innovations and their applicability – or otherwise – to county areas.
  • Exploring successful examples of such initiatives both in England and abroad.
  • The potential quantum of revenue streams that could be generated in CCN member areas.