The Government is listening carefully to counties. And a number of the County Councils’ Network (CCN) members have lost no time in queueing up to express interest in grabbling a devolution deal.
So it’s a particularly auspicious time for leader of Surrey CC, Tim Oliver, to take over this week as the CCN chair.
But this is a man who also has the districts and boroughs in his blood, having served as either leader of the opposition, deputy leader or leader at Elmbridge DC in Surrey for 20 years from 1999. With councils of all types now firmly knocking at the albeit already pretty open door of government with their devolution asks, this experience will have prepared him to help guide counties through the deal-making and perhaps horse-trading that lies ahead.
The CCN has lately been eschewing unitarisation and has instead been lobbying hard for county deals.
‘I think probably there have been a couple of dozen expressions of interest,’ he says.
‘But not all of them are just from counties because some of the districts and boroughs have clubbed together to put in their own proposals. So there are between 10 and 20 in terms of the counties.’
Out of those that have expressed interest, he says, ‘a handful of counties will be taken forward at this stage into a pilot phase'. The pilots are expected to be negotiated over the next two to three months and then those come into effect early next year.
Does he think more counties will come forward once we’ve seen details of what the Government will be proposing on devolution in the levelling up White Paper expected at the end of October? ‘Yes I do.’
How does he assess the CCN’s relationship with the rest of local government as communities emerge from the last 18 months of the pandemic?
‘I think actually the pandemic has been helpful in that sense in that it has forced all of the parties to come together and almost uniquely with one single aim, which is to support vulnerable residents and keep people as healthy as possible,’ he replies.
‘And I think that alignment of ambition has really helped distract those long-standing arguments about who’s supposed to be doing what and so on.’
Cllr Oliver’s own council is not pursuing any unitary conversations.
‘I don’t think it’s what government wants,’ he says.
‘They’ve been very clear on that. What they want to see is a streamlining of local government, but that’s about looking at how you can really take costs down electively across the system.’
Surrey has expressed its interest in a county deal. Is he confident that he can work together with the other tiers in his patch to develop a way forward on devolution?
‘I think what we have done here in Surrey is spend the time building those relationships and articulating together who’s going to do what going forward,’ says Cllr Oliver.
What’s his assessment of where the whole unitarisation project stands at this point?
‘I think it is pretty much dead in the water. There were three or four of us that were trying to get into the first wave of unitarisation last year, then the Government said we’re only going to take three forward [North Yorkshire, Somerset and Cumbria]’.
Things have moved on, he continues.
‘We need to get on now with rebuilding our economies, getting people healthy and improving their wellbeing, and so on. The unitarisation process is a couple of years that would delay getting on and shift focus from what we really need to concentrate on. We need to stop tinkering with these things now.’
Surrey CC’s ‘asks’ at this stage could signal a lot about what core powers counties are generally seeking to achieve from devolution. ‘What we have focused on are levers and powers that will help us deliver a stronger local economy, will deliver our health and wellbeing strategy, and will deliver a greener future. And I see the county level as being very much about being a strategic authority.’
Cllr Oliver says that some of that will be ‘about powers perhaps that sit with the local enterprise partnerships, where you are looking at economic growth, skills and apprenticeships – we would want to have control over that’.
Ideally he also wants longer-term funding commitments around transport and infrastructure, and a conversation on the use of the community infrastructure levy.
‘At the moment that goes to the district and boroughs, and yet that is supposed to fund infrastructure improvements.’
Speaking personally, does he think the combined authority model been pushed as far as it can go?
‘I think the challenge is the issue of one council, one vote, which, with no disrespect, if you are a £1bn county council and you’re a £30m borough council having the same vote doesn’t necessarily feel particularly equitable.’
The county deal is the route to devolution ‘is absolutely the answer – it’s simple’, he adds.
He concludes: ‘This is about what additional powers we can get from central government. It’s about giving us more local control and the more we can control things the more we can deliver things.
‘It doesn’t need primary legislation, it doesn’t need restructuring, it still needs cooperation and collaboration between all the organisations.’
What he doesn’t want now is navel-gazing about governance structures.