More devolution is happening – and, unsurprisingly, we at Inflect think that this is a good thing, being the only public affairs agency in the UK to focus on how best to effect change through a devolved lens with our specialist devo team – Devo@Inflect.

The Government has announced another devolution deal, this time in Devon and Torbay. This means that sixty per cent of the English population will now be covered by devolution – up from 41% just under two years ago.

A non-urban devolution makes a bit of a change. So far, pretty much all roads to English devolution have led back to urbanism. Born out of the No Stone Unturned report by Michael Heseltine, the wave of major deals since 2014 have followed steps of Greater London devolution in being urban centred: Greater Manchester, West Midlands, Liverpool City Region, the North of Tyne Combined, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough are all built around one or more major cities.

With 9 out of the UK’s 10 largest cities now covered, the Government is turning its attention to England’s rural regions. This is going to present new challenges, both for the regions and the Government, and some of these are inherent in the deal itself.

Since the publication of the Levelling Up White paper two years ago, the Government has legislated for a new format – county deals – paving the way for a new kind of devolution. Six deals in primarily rural areas followed, all with a directly elected mayor. The Autumn Statement also confirmed new non-mayoral deals for Lancashire, Cornwall, Devon and Surrey.

Rural authorities face significantly different challenges – with ageing populations, low productivity, and geographically sprawled communities. Not to mention, a local government funding crisis across many councils and a reduced capacity to raise revenue or reap the benefits of economies of scale compared to their urban counterparts.

For rural and non-urban areas, the key thing devolution can offer is more autonomy over policy areas that affect local people, whether that’s transport, housing, skills, or health. But when a process is created with city regions in mind, making a success of devolution in rural areas when deals are made between groups of authorities and central government provides new challenges around coordinating large groups of councils with different priorities, unlike tightly knit city areas where having a directly elected mayor is better suited.

It seems that the Government isn’t fiscally onboard with this new form of devolution either.

Devon and Torbay CCA will receive a tiny £16 million in capital funding from the Government, £4.9m a year over three years from the Shared Prosperity Fund, and £33,000 a year for the setup costs for three years. To put it bluntly, this is a pitifully small amount of money.

To put this into perspective, GMCA has a central budget of around £275m. The GMCA has a population of 2.8 million people, while Devon and Cornwall have a combined 1.3 million people. This means that the new Devon and Torbay CCA will have around one-tenth the per-person budget of the GMCA.

Devon and Torbay CCA will gain the flexibility to use capital receipts from asset sales as revenue funding for public service transformational initiatives, new powers to improve and better integrate local transport, the ability to introduce bus franchising subject to approval from the Secretary of State, new powers to shape local skills provisions, and additional funding for local housing priorities and net zero ambitions.

Despite Government claims that there is no discrimination between devolution for rural and urban areas, policy and funding decisions skewed toward urban centres have created an inequitable system, leading to disproportionately higher cuts in predominantly rural regions. In the fiscal year 2019-20, urban areas received 55% more funding per capita compared to their rural counterparts, despite rural areas contributing 17% more through council taxes. Rural and county economies in England are also recovering far more slowly from the coronavirus crisis than urban and city areas, which regained pre-pandemic economic output in 2022, according to research by EY and the County Councils Network.

It’s worth recognising that rural areas have some different priorities than what we have seen our urban Metro Mayors campaigning for – they aren’t expecting to be productivity powerhouses that can raise massive revenue. The Devon and Torbay CCA deal placed emphasis on boosting historic industries like agriculture and maritime, protecting natural heritage, and increasing development of emerging specialisms like environmental science, agri-tech, and advanced manufacturing.

This is not to say that addressing skills shortages and productivity decline in these areas is not important – but a place-based approach is needed to harness the broad, varied priorities and strengths of our rural regions instead of measuring them against the metrics of success used by their urban counterparts.

But, whilst additional powers are a good thing, it seems like the Government is hesitant to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to rural devolution.

Share: