Government urged to level-up shire counties

December 18, 2019

England’s largest councils have urged new Government ministers to level-up the needs of ‘left-behind' areas – the majority of which are in shire counties.

A post-election analysis from the County Councils Network (CCN), which represents 36 county local authorities, shows that 43% of the new seats (22 out of 51) won by the Conservatives in England are in shire counties, whilst 54 out of the 100 ‘left-behind’ towns identified by the Government in its Stronger Towns Fund are in these areas. In total, 70% of Conservative MPs now represent shire county areas.

CCN has described concern over a ‘misconception’ that shire counties are all affluent and ‘city centric’ regional devolution policies could prevent them being able to invest in their towns and deprived communities as part of the levelling up agenda. These councils span areas in the North and Midlands alongside rural and coastal communities in traditional Conservative areas of the South, West and East.

In a new document, ‘CCN: Our Priorities for the New Government’, setting out how the Government’s policies can ‘unleash the potential of counties’, county leaders have urged the Government to level-up shire counties by allocating a fair share of funding for public services, more investment in economic growth, and an extension of devolved powers to the shires.

CCN argues that the Government must press ahead with plans to ensure that the way councils are funded is fairer and to deliver on its pledge to convene urgent cross-party talks on social care.

A new analysis by CCN reveals failure to invest in county areas, and to solve the social care funding crisis, will leave these councils facing a funding shortfall of £13.2bn over the next five years.

If these funding challenges persist, CCN warns that councils will be hampered in their efforts to address the Government’s levelling up agenda, with local authorities unable to invest heavily in services to support regional growth such as new roads and infrastructure, bus subsidies, business support and cultural services.

The document also calls for the Government to abandon a ‘city centric policy obsession’ to help unleash the potential of counties:

  • Extending ‘ambitious’ devolution deals to county areas to enable counties to access fresh powers in skills, transport, and regional growth.
  • Reform of the planning system so decisions over major new housing developments are matched with enough infrastructure and county authorities are given an increased role in place-shaping.
  • Allow bids from rural areas to access the Government’s flagship £4.1bn Local Public Transport Fund to help reverse the decline in local bus services in county towns and rural areas.
  • A more balanced distribution of central infrastructure funding between counties and cities and targeting the new ‘pothole fund’ on county areas.
  • Review the future of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and whether they should be the main vehicle to deliver local industrial strategies.
  • Equipping authorities with new powers and resources to tackle climate change and respond to extreme weather, including a fair distribution of new flood defence investment, particularly for rural and remote areas.

Cllr David Williams, chairman of the County Councils Network, and leader of Hertfordshire County Council, said, 'Boris Johnson’s majority government has been elected on a domestic agenda to level-up the left-behind parts of the country, and this is a pledge that CCN welcome.

'Counties are home to some of our most prosperous and successful areas, but we must not forget that the majority of left-behind areas are located within counties; from deprived towns in the North and South, rural and coastal communities in the South-West and East, to former manufacturing hotbeds in the Midlands.

'If the Government is to improve the lives of the communities it has pledged to support, then ministers and policymakers must move beyond the misconception that shire counties are all affluent, with this document setting out the tools, powers, and funding needed to unleash the potential of counties. If the Government is to genuinely level-up towns, build more homes, and improve regional growth, we need more devolved powers, reform to our planning system, and access to new funding streams. This will mean moving away from a city centric policy obsession in Westminster that has held back those left-behind communities for decades.

'Fairer funding and a cross-party consensus on social care reform is needed to help close the £13.2bn funding shortfall of facing our areas. By doing so, we can repay this investment by pledging resource to the growth-enabling services that can make the biggest difference in levelling up communities and spreading prosperity.'

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