Progress on devolution in England Contents

6Widening the geography of devolution

The need for wider devolution

122.Only 41% of England’s population and 14% of the land area is currently in a mayoral devolved authority (including London).401 To bolster ‘levelling up’ Prime Minister has stated his support for extending to county areas the same powers over infrastructure, transport, and skills enjoyed by combined authorities.402 These would take the form of county deals, which would be bespoke to the needs of individual places, with government taking “a flexible approach to allow more places to agree devolution.”403 Subsequent reports have suggested this might require a directly elected leader, though the government will consider alternative proposals.404

123.There was support for extending devolution to rural areas of England. CRPE argued there had not been sufficient devolution and a bespoke approach was needed to concentrate on local needs.405 Cornwall and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough were both cited as examples of successful devolution to non-metropolitan areas.406 We were also warned that without devolution non-metropolitan areas risked being left-behind.407

124.One way of extending devolution is to provide additional powers to county councils. Cumbria Council argued that “Devolution to County Councils must at a minimum be equal to the powers offered to city regions, with the expectation that devolved powers and functions should be effectively rural-proofed to cater for a county such as Cumbria”.408 The County Council Network championed the idea of their councils as designated ‘strategic authorities’, which would have the same powers as mayoral combined authorities, alongside powers over statutory spatial plans, UK Shared Prosperity Fund distribution, bus franchising, and responsibilities currently exercised by the Education and Skills Funding Agency.409

Should there be mayors everywhere?

125.One of the most controversial structural debates about English devolution has been whether directly elected mayors should be required to run devolved organisations. Previous governments insisted that the new combined authorities had to have a directly elected mayor.410 All the combined authorities with devolution deals have one. There are two models of mayors—one where the mayor is held to account by a directly elected assembly (seen in London) and one where mayors sit on a council with the leaders of the constituent local councils. However, Cornwall, which has a devolution deal, does not have a mayor. The requirement to have one was blamed for the failure of negotiations of devolution deals in areas such as Hampshire, Lincolnshire, Suffolk and Norfolk; and the withdrawal of North Somerset from the West of England Combined Authority.411

126.We heard several arguments advanced in favour of mayors. Metro mayors could be a spokesperson, “figureheads for local areas”,412 who enjoy greater sway through having been elected.413 We were told the London mayor “is almost identified as a Prime Minister for London”.414 Decisions are more public and can be subject to better scrutiny and accountability.415 This in turn requires the mayors to interact with people across the whole of their area.416 Mayors were credited for providing “joined up, longer term policy solutions”;417 for being a clear contact for business;418 for having secured and continuing to lobby for additional devolution;419 and for providing a full-time focus on the combined authority.420 They were praised for having and exercising soft power beyond their formal remit,421 including holding central Government to account, for example over delays for rail passengers in the north of England.422

127.Professor Colin Copus from De Montfort University also pushed back against the idea that mayors would not work in rural areas.423 He argued it was a myth that “mayors do not work in rural areas”, arguing instead that evidence “from across the globe” showed there were more directly elected mayors in rural than in urban areas.424 The counter-argument was that mayors might be desirable, but were not indispensable.425 We were told that many councils, particularly in county areas, were unhappy at having a mayor imposed,426 partly because it might increase bureaucracy.427 The question was also raised of how a directly elected mayor would operate in a unitary authority with its own council leader.428

128.Alternatives to a mayor were suggested. One model is a manager appointed by the local council to oversee a local area, an approach found in the Republic of Ireland and parts of America.429 A second model is the council leader model found in most local authorities in England, including Cornwall.430 This model was critiqued as risking the election of an individual only representing their local council, and being a closed process leading to low levels of public recognition and understanding resulting in a lack of high profile leadership.431

129.Devolution should not be restricted solely to urban areas. The Government must strive to ensure devolution deals are reached with rural areas. The Government must make pursuing devolution deals with non-metropolitan areas a priority. It should write to us with an update on its progress in this area no later than June 2022. The expansion of devolution should include sensitivity to local concerns about the requirement to have a directly elected mayor. The enhanced public consultation we have recommended should take place before and during the negotiations should including examining whether there is support in an area for a directly elected mayor. If such support is lacking this should not prevent devolution from taking place.

Local government reorganisation

130.Our evidence on local government reorganisation covered four themes. First, there was strong resistance to making the adoption of combined authority structures a condition of devolution.432 There were also calls for clarity on the relationship between local and combined authorities.433

131.Secondly, there was support for folding Local Enterprise Partnerships into combined authorities,434 preferably with coterminous boundaries.435 This would require clear governance structures,436 and retention of the distinctive voice they give to business.437 This reflects our predecessor committee’s report in 2017, which called for upper tier councils and combined authorities to monitor LEPs through their scrutiny committees, including requiring them to provide information and attend committee meetings.438 It also echoes the former Secretary of State’s comments that he wanted to reform LEPs during 2021.439 There was also praise for the existing combination of the position of Police and Crime Commissioner with metro mayor duties in Greater Manchester,440 (it is similarly combined in West Yorkshire),441 and support for its extension to all combined authorities.442

132.Thirdly, we received calls for greater for regional cooperation, as city-regions were seen as too small to deal with issues such as energy, foreign direct investment, or interregional transport.443 It was proposed this should be based on existing local government structures, modelled on the cooperation on housing and land planning in Scotland that persisted after regional councils were abolished.444

Should England move to a unitary model of local authorities?

133.The fourth theme of our evidence on local government reorganisation focused on whether to reorganise local government structures, abolishing the two-tiers of district and council councils and replacing them with a single tier of councils, unitary authorities. Since the 1990s all local authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have moved to a single layer of local government, and there are currently 56 unitary authorities in England.445

134.In 2020 there were indications that the Government was supporting a move to a unitary model across England, based around populations of 300,000 to 400,000 people, because this structure would lower costs.446 Subsequently, government ministers have espoused their openness to alternative ways to save money and willingness to pursue an approach led by local councils.447 Consultations were held and decisions made for local government reorganisations in North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Somerset.448 The Government has announced its support for a single unitary authority in North Yorkshire,449 and in Somerset,450 and two in Cumbria.451

135.Representatives from existing unitary authorities argued their formation had proven beneficial. Cornwall’s unitary authority had let the county “speak with one voice” and improved public sector delivery, for example in fostering cooperation across health provision.452 Creating the unitary Durham Council had “allowed us to co-ordinate our economy and resources” and to have a single local plan whilst retaining different social identities.453 The achievements of Wiltshire Council,454 and the reforms in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were also cited in support of unitary authorities.455

136.Dr John Stanton from the University of London was amongst those advocating moving to a unitary structure. He argued that a major problem at present was confusion over responsibility where multiple tiers existed.456 The two tier system was seen to have created “the misalignment between political and economic geographies” caused by the two-tier system.457 By contrast reform could help to foster regional cooperation.458 The retention of local links could be assured by sub-committees dealing with particular local areas.459 David Williams from Hertfordshire Council supported moving to a unitary system and argued an individual local council should not be able to block it.460 The County Council Network’s written evidence suggested both sympathy for moving to a unitary status whilst being willing to consider reforms within the existing two-tier structure.461 Its August 2020 report argued that converting the 25 existing two-tier authorities to unitary status would save £2.943 billion over five years.462

137.The District Council Network disagreed with moves towards more unitary authorities. It argued district councils had been successful during covid-19 and anchored local government in local communities. By contrast, unitary authorities at a county-level would be 122 times larger than the average council in Germany, 14 times larger than in Denmark, and 5 times larger than the current average for all councils in England.463 These criticisms were echoed in our evidence. 464 The political party Mebyon Kernow argued that the reforms in Cornwall had reduced the number of councillors from 331 in 2009 to 87 in 2021. It contrasted this with the 482 councillors in Devon and 410 in Somerset.465 Professor Colin Copus from De Montfort University stated that adopting unitary authorities would mean “we then just end up with English local government, already being the largest across Europe by a country mile, growing exponentially.” He also argued that different countries have five or six tiers of local government, and that larger local government units tend to have lower turnouts.466

138.Advocates of change did acknowledge they were unsure whether the promised savings would be delivered.467 This echoed a suggestion that previous unitary reorganisations had not delivered the promised savings.468 Academic research into past reorganisations have also come to differing conclusions on whether the changes were beneficial in terms of savings and public service delivery.469

139.There was a lack of consensus on the merits of moving to unitary authorities and resistance to making structural changes a condition of devolution. The combined authority model may not be appropriate in all places and should not be a condition of a deal. The Government should commission a review of the benefits and costs, in economic, democratic, local connection, and service delivery terms, that have resulted from previous moves to unitary authority structures. This review would help inform the on-going debate over the structures of local authorities.

140.The devolution framework should clarify the relationship of local authorities with combined authorities. As we have noted devolution is not just about increasing the powers of combined authorities, but enhancing the powers of local government as a whole. The Government should continue to ensure Local Enterprise Partnerships and combined authorities have the same boundaries and are effectively integrated. We reiterate our predecessor committee’s calling in 2017 for scrutiny committees from local and combined authorities to monitor the effectiveness of Local Enterprise Partnerships. The Government should support organisations such as the Northern Powerhouse to foster cooperation, without imposing any further formal layers of government.

401 Institute for Government, ‘Metro Mayors’, accessed 16 July 2021

402 Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, The Prime Minister’s Levelling Up speech: 15 July 2021, 15 July 2021

403 PM sets out new ‘County Deals’ to devolve power to local communities in Levelling Up speech”, Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street press release, 15 July 2021

405 CPRE (PDE0004). See also Local Government Association (PDE0011), Q8 (John Stanton, University of London), Q24 (Colin Copus, De Montfort University)

406 Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies (CURDS), Newcastle University, UK (PDE0006), Dr John Stanton (PDE0007), British Academy (PDE0008)

407 Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies (CURDS), Newcastle University, UK (PDE0006), Britain’s Leading Edge (POD0007)

408 Cumbria Council (PDE0035)

409 County Council Network (PDE0028)

410 Q72 (Ed Hammond, Centre for Public Scrutiny)

411 De Montfort University (PDE0003), British Academy (PDE0008), County Council Network (PDE0028)

412 Q12 (John Stanton, University of London). See also Q17 (Colin Copus, De Montfort University), Q57 (Andrew Walker, Local Government Information Unit), Dr John Stanton (PDE0007), Civil Engineering Contractors Association (PDE0025), Centre for Cities (PDE0030), CBI (PDE0031), Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (PDE0033)

413 Q72 (Ed Hammond, Centre for Public Scrutiny), Professor Francesca Gains (POD0009)

414 Q40 (John Stanton, University of London)

415 Q238 (Greg Clark MP)

416 De Montfort University (PDE0003), Q16 (Francesca Gains, University of Manchester)

417 DevoConnect (POD0006). See also Regional Studies Association (POD0019)

418 Q81 (Jim Hubbard, CBI), Q208 (Greg Clark MP)

419 Q57 (Andrew Walker, Local Government Information Unit), Q123 (Sir Richard Leese, Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership), Centre for London (PDE0018)

420 Q123 (Sir Richard Leese, Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership)

421 Q73 (Abdool Kara, National Audit Office), Q156 (Jamie Driscoll, Metro Mayor, North of Tyne Combined Authority), Greater Manchester Combined Authority (PDE0032), Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (PDE0033)

422 CBI (PDE0031)

423 County Council Network (PDE0028), Royal Town Planning Institute (POD0010)

424 Q17 (Colin Copus, De Montfort University). See also Qq14–15 (John Stanton, University of London)

425 Q14 (John Stanton, University of London), Q66, Q72 (Ed Hammond, Centre for Public Scrutiny), Q73 (Andrew Walker, Local Government Information Unit), Q223 (Lord Kerslake, UK2070 Commission) See also Centre for Public Scrutiny (PDE0002), Local Government Association (PDE0011), Sheffield City Region Combined Authority (PDE0016)

426 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Liberal Democrats Coordinating Committee (PDE0019), DevoConnect (POD0006)

427 British Academy (PDE0008), Sunderland City Council (PDE0015), County Council Network (PDE0028), Royal Town Planning Institute (POD0010)

428 Q125 (Kate Kennally, Cornwall Council)

429 Dr John Stanton (PDE0007)

430 Dr John Stanton (PDE0007). See also Q188 (David Williams, Hertfordshire Council), Q223 (Lord Kerslake, UK2070 Commission)

431 De Montfort University (PDE0003)

432 Q22 (Colin Copus, De Montfort University), County Council Network (PDE0028), Cumbria Council (PDE0035). See also Local Government Association, People and Places Board Minutes, 10 November 2020, p 3 (unpaginated)

433 Q157 (James Palmer, Metro Mayor, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority), Centre for Public Scrutiny (PDE0002), Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Leadership Board (PDE0014), Sunderland City Council (PDE0015), Civil Engineering Contractors Association (PDE0025), Councillor Barrie Taylor (Deputy Chairman at Wrington Parish Council) (POD0001)

434 Q76 (Abdool Kara, National Audit Office), Q96 (Simon Parkinson, Workers’ Educational Association)

435 Qq95–96 (Jim Hubbard, CBI). See also CBI (PDE0031)

436 British Academy (PDE0008)

437 Q76 (Ed Hammond, Centre for Public Scrutiny)

438 Communities and Local Government Committee, First Report of Session 2017–19, Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees, HC 369, para 96.

439 Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Local Government Association annual conference 2021: Secretary of State’s speech, 6 July 2021

440 Greater Manchester Combined Authority (PDE0032)

441 The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (Transfer of Police and Crime Commissioner Functions to the Mayor) Order 2017 (SI 2017/470); The West Yorkshire Combined Authority (Election of Mayor and Functions) Order 2021 (SI 2021/112) Part 10

442 Q76 (Abdool Kara, National Audit Office)

443 Regional Studies Association (POD0019)

444 UK2070 Commission (PDE0020), UK2070 Commission (POD0012), Q215 (Lord Kerslake, UK2070 Commission)

445 Unitary local government, CBP09056, House of Commons Library, April 2021, Appendix 1, p 47

446 PQ 67820 (Local Government: Reorganisation), 10 July 2020; “Read the Simon Clarke devo speech the ministry doesn’t want you to see”, Local Government Chronicle, 17 July 2020

447 HC Deb 12 October 2020, col 502WS (Commons Written Minister Statement); PQ HL12601 (Local Government: Oxfordshire), 9 February 2021. See also Local Government Association, People and Places Board Agenda, 10 November 2020, p 30

448 Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Consultation on proposals for locally-led reorganisation of local government in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset, 22 February 2021; Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Consultation response summary: local government reorganisation, 22 July 2021; HC Deb, 21 July 2021, col 234WS (Commons written ministerial statement) 

452 Qq121–122 (Kate Kennally, Cornwall Council)

453 Q184 (Amy Harhoff, Durham County Council)

454 Mr Richard Styles (POD0003)

455 Q148 (Andrew Carter, Centre for Cities)

456 Q47 (John Stanton, University of London). See also Dr John Stanton (PDE0007), Q85, Q97 (Jim Hubbard, CBI), CBI (PDE0031), Mr Richard Styles (POD0003)

457 Q148 (Andrew Carter, Centre for Cities)

458 UK2070 Commission (POD0012)

459 Q148 (David Phillips, Institute for Fiscal Studies)

460 Qq184–186 (David Williams, Hertfordshire Council)

461 County Council Network (PDE0028)

463 District Council Network, Power in Place: devolution and districts driving our recovery, (September 2020), pp 2, 8, 15 (unpaginated)

464 Qq74–75 (Andrew Walker, Local Government Information Unit), Q75 (Ed Hammond, Centre for Public Scrutiny), Q224 (Lord Kerslake, UK2070 Commission), CPRE (PDE0004), DevoConnect (POD0006)

465 Mebyon Kernow (PDE0009)

466 Q19, Q47 (Colin Copus, De Montfort University). See also Colin Copus, Steve Leach and Alistair Jones, Bigger is not better: the evidence case for keeping ‘local’ government (October 2020), Joshua McDonnell, “Municipality size, political efficacy and political participation: a systematic review”, Local Government Studies, vol 46 issue 3 (2020), pp 331-350.

467 Q148 (Andrew Carter, Centre for Cities)

468 Q148 (David Phillips, Institute for Fiscal Studies)

469 Unitary local government, CBP09056, House of Commons Library, April 2021, pp 17-22

Published: 1 October 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement