Almost two months on from the Prime Minister’s levelling up speech, some details have begun to emerge on the Government’s devolution agenda.
The speech, which was described as vague by some, only floated the idea of regional devolution, but various developments since signal an increased Government commitment to devolution. The first of which being confirmed plans for new unitary authorities in Cumbria, North Yorkshire, and Somerset. Announced by Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, just days after the Prime Minister’s levelling up speech, these new unitary authorities are set to be formed in 2023. The speech was also criticised by the Leader of South Norfolk District Council, Councillor John Fuller, who said the agenda was merely a “restatement of where [South Norfolk District Council] got to in 2015 – rebadged as levelling up”
Shortly after this announcement, the Government provided further details on what devolution bids should include through a guide produced by the Local Government Association (LGA). Proposing that authorities contact the Government to put forward their plans for devolution, Hampshire, Surrey, and Suffolk County Councils and four East Midlands councils have put forward their bids in response.
Earlier this week, it also became apparent that North Yorkshire will be the next region to install a Metro Mayor, after Local Government Minister, Luke Hall, wrote to council leaders in North Yorkshire to express support for a Metro Mayor to oversee the region. North Yorkshire is set to join nine other regions in England with Metro Mayors: Greater Manchester, Liverpool, the West Midlands, Tees Valley, the West of England, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Sheffield, North of Tyne, and West Yorkshire. The Government’s intention to introduce more Metro Mayors was also consolidated this week through the New Statesman, which published a piece from Luke Hall on the Government’s levelling up agenda. Praising the success of Metro Mayors such as Ben Houchen in Tees Valley, Hall stated that the Government would like to roll out these powers to the rest of the country.
All of this would suggest that the Government is committed to its highly anticipated devolution agenda. However, some concern remains about how strong this commitment is, due to numerous delays to the white paper on devolution, which has now been replaced by the forthcoming Levelling Up White Paper. Given that the Government appears to blow hot and cold on devolution, there remains concerns about its commitment to this area, which figures such as Lord Heseltine have voiced, describing the devolution agenda as ‘dead’ and stressing that the Government has failed to deliver on its past promises. This includes a pledge to give all Metro Mayors the same powers as the Mayor of Greater Manchester, which is yet to be delivered. Former Chief Adviser, Dominic Cummings has also worryingly described ‘levelling up’ as no more than a slogan.
So, just how committed is the Government to its devolution agenda? While a number of signs seem to suggest a renewed commitment from the Government to devolution, it is difficult to know how far this commitment extends without the Levelling Up White Paper, which is yet to be published. While we await the publication of this paper in autumn, we can presume that it is in good hands, given that it is being produced by Neil O’Brien MP, former special adviser to pro-devolution George Osborne.
In terms of the impact of increased devolution on planning, considering that unitary authorities oversee much larger areas than District Councils, it could make it more difficult for authorities to do an effective job, especially in areas such as planning which require strong local knowledge. In North Yorkshire, which will be one of the next unitary authorities, this concern has been voiced by Cllr Kevin Foster, who fears that the introduction of a unitary authority will make planning oversight much more remote. Given that unitary authorities provide the services which are usually split between both county and district councils, considerable pressure would also be added on planning departments, which are already overstretched, which could be a cause for concern among constituents.