Ministers plan sweeping changes to local government as part of levelling up agenda, leaked paper reveals

Exclusive: Draft levelling up white paper, seen by ‘The Independent’, reveals key details of government’s flagship policy

Anna Isaac,Ashley Cowburn
Thursday 09 December 2021 19:38 GMT
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The government plans to radically alter local government in England, replacing it with a single-tier mayoral-style system, according to a draft of the government’s levelling up white paper seen by The Independent.

The document – marked “Official Sensitive” – states the government is setting out a “new devolution framework for England” based on a model of a directly elected leader “over a well-defined economic geography”.

The ambition is to strip back layers of local government and replace them with a single-tier system, as in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, but the government is already braced for a backlash to the plans, according to one senior official.

“Levelling up requires coherent local institutions,” the document reads. With local government split across county councils, district councils and unitary authorities there needs to be a more streamlined approach, it suggests.

At present, across most of England there are two tiers of local government, county and district, which share responsibility for council services. The proposals would scrap those tiers and take an approach seen in London and other metropolitan areas where one single structure takes charge of all services.

The plans proposed in the draft paper would mean a huge overhaul of local government, and either scrapping or merging England’s 181 district councils and 24 county councils.

The step towards single tier local government would need to be under way by 2023 in order to coincide with changes in funding for regions. A new Local Growth Funding Roadmap detailing how this will work will be released in 2022, and then enforced in 2023, according to the paper.

Boris Johnson’s government will also define its flagship levelling up agenda with a host of end-of-decade “missions” on crime, health and living standards.

The document lays out 13 missions with which to “anchor” the agenda, which the prime minister has described as the central purpose of his administration, and all come with a 2030 deadline.

The government’s white paper was promised before the end of the year, but last week it emerged the proposals would be delayed until 2022 as ministers grapple with controversies on multiple fronts and the increasing threat of Covid with the new omicron variant.

The missions include targets from narrowing gaps in life expectancy to an undefined target to reduce the numbers of people renting “non-decent homes”.

There are also commitments to have nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, to increase the number of adults in training in low-skilled areas by 20 per cent, and to increase KS2 outcomes in the bottom third of local authority areas by more than a third by 2030.

“By 2030, we will have a globally competitive city in every region and nation of the UK,” the paper reads.

The proposals amount to “wholesale changes to information, incentives and institutions” which “underpin decision-making in the UK”.

While the commitments are UK-wide, much of the paper focuses on what can be achieved within England, noting limits to Westminster’s powers to override existing devolved powers in the other nations of the UK.

Each mission will be “a rolling 10-year endeavour”, and reviewed at each spending review by the Treasury and there is an additional document that sets out metrics for measuring progress on each.

But the 2030 targets are likely to be seized on by opposition parties at Westminster amid the backdrop of imminent concerns over living standards this winter, the manifesto-flouting 1.25 percentage point increase to national insurance, and the unequal impact of the government’s social care reforms in different areas of the country.

The white paper also aims to reform the collation and sharing of data across local government. Each of the levelling up missions will be measured against data dashboards, to make it easier to monitor progress. The metrics used to create these will be published alongside the government’s white paper.

Several parts of the draft paper show that key decisions from the levelling up cabinet committee and the Treasury have yet to be signed off.

A Treasury official told The Independent that this department would have the final call on economic policies laid out in the white paper.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities declined to comment ahead of publication.

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