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Towns and smaller settlements can and should be part of “levelling-up”

Government needs to look beyond the big cities to what local government can deliver.

By Sam Chapman-Allen

Over the past 18 months, district councils have stepped up to the challenges posed by the pandemic. Whether it be delivering £9bn in lifeline business support grants, providing emergency shelter to thousands of rough sleepers, or helping local businesses and high streets to reopen safely, district councils have been at the heart of supporting their communities when they’ve needed it the most.

Councils delivering district services provide 86 of the 130 most-valued and visible public services in every street in non-metropolitan England. These include housing and homelessness, planning, environmental health, leisure, and waste and recycling collection. We’re home to 40 per cent of the country’s businesses and one-third of its economic output.

This is an exciting time to be taking over as chair of the District Councils’ Network as we all work together with central government to build back better from the pandemic. I was in Manchester to see the Prime Minister set out his vision for the country. It is clear that much of the government’s ambition to level up the country cannot be achieved without a strong partnership with local government. This creates a fantastic opportunity for us to shape what the government does on the big issues of the day.

Levelling up cannot simply be a political slogan. Fundamentally it must be about giving powers and responsibilities to local communities to reduce inequality, to create opportunities, to make local economies thrive, and to improve the life chances of people living across the country. For too long, England’s fastest-growing towns and cities have been locked out of opportunities to shape more of their future, at great national cost. The approach so far, focusing on large metropolitan areas, has overlooked an inconvenient truth: that smaller places were growing faster than larger ones.

If levelling up is to be a success, it should be bottom-up, flexible and non-prescriptive, allowing councils to come together to reflect the economic patterns around towns, cities and supporting connections across larger areas. We need the government to lay out the full range of powers and funding it is willing to devolve to local areas and then deliver on its commitment.

We’ve proven during the pandemic our capacity and desire to support and lead our local communities. We want government to give us more powers to do even more. We want the government to support local areas to develop their own partnerships of choice to attract the powers needed to support their economic geographies, with every council in those areas on an equal footing in any agreed deals. It’s vital the government sticks to the clear principle that disruptive local government reorganisation is not a prerequisite for devolution in any area of England and needs removing from the conversation. Our priority is to get on with delivering better public services and building vibrant communities, supporting economic growth rather than rearranging the deck chairs.

District councils stand ready and able to help fulfil the government’s aim to level up the country and ensure that nowhere is left behind. With the right backing, the flexibility and the powers to deliver change, we can help drive the national recovery and make the country fit for the future.

Cllr Sam Chapman-Allen is the chair of the District Councils’ Network, a cross-party organisation representing 183 district councils in England.

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