Guest Blog: Simpler, stronger local government is the partner industry needs

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By Henna Shah
Researcher, ResPublica

Our report Devo 2.0: The Case for Counties, published last week, comes at a turning point for the manufacturing and engineering sector. With Brexit on the horizon and the prospect of local industrial strategies, strong local leadership will be the key to success.

The counties of England, where the manufacturing sector comprises around 30% of the local economy, have been ‘left-behind’ by existing devolution settlements, with their extensive focus on city-region areas.

Our report underlines the importance of devolved powers for local government if it is to build the vital physical and social infrastructure that all parts of the county need. Only with empowered, accountable local councils can we effectively service the needs of local business and local people, ensuring investment is well-directed and industry has the resources it needs to grow.

We propose that the 27 (of 37) county councils in England which are currently operating with a two-tier, county and district council system, move to become single (unitary) councils or strategic authorities.

In the first instance, this would remove the unnecessary bureaucracy that hinders both business and the public. But more importantly, it would provide councils with the ability to plan and deliver on they key issues for their area, from housing to infrastructure.It will also set up the strong governance needed to agree and implement county devolution deals, overcoming the current difficulties getting all stakeholders onside.

Empowering local areas to make strategic decisions by moving from two-tier arrangements to unitary or strategic authorities is not only more operationally efficient, but is also a key aspect of ensuring a robust industrial strategy across the country.

Whilst there have been some significant successes at a regional level, we lack a common national strategy uniting the disparate elements agreed so far with regional organisations such as the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine. A straightforward solution is for empowered counties to form the building blocks of this nationwide programme.

Devolution to unitary counties would provide those with local economic expertise the power to identify gaps in skills and investment where they are. Combined with a simpler and more efficient structure for local government, investment in these areas would be simpler.

Businesses would benefit from certainty that the workforce and infrastructure they need to succeed would be there when they need it, helping to achieve sustainable growth across the country.

That would be good for manufacturers - and good for Britain.

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