Written evidence submitted by the M25 Councils (LRS0050)
As the four counties surrounding the London urban region, Surrey, Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex County Council have a crucial role to play in supporting the city’s economy, as well as the wider south east of England economy, and with it, that of the whole country. Our own county economies are strong in their own right, and we contribute significant amounts to the Exchequer every year, with a combined GVA of £146 billion in 2017.
Whilst our economies are relatively prosperous, areas of deprivation exist, including some of the most deprived in the UK. Levelling up must take place within regions as well as between them. It is vital that inclusive economic growth and development is spearheaded through the most effective body in order to level up across and within the counties and ensure a smooth recovery from Covid-19.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating but has also created new and unique opportunities for local authorities to foster economic growth and development. County-led working with partners through Local Resilience Forums has demonstrated this. Local authorities have stepped up as system leaders, working within and across local government, NHS, police, education, central government and the VCFS, as well as being firmly rooted in local communities.
In Surrey, for example, the County Council has led the standing up of NHS Headley Court, and oversaw a hardship payments system to ensure financial help is available to those affected by disaster and emergency.
In Kent, the County Council, Medway and District Councils established the Covid-19 Emergency Helpline for businesses through its Growth Hub within days of lockdown. Since its inception, 9,096 calls have been received and made by its call handlers and specialist advisers and a further 2,046 helped through a webchat facility. The recently published Kent and Medway Economic Renewal and Resilience Plan provides a framework for further action to support jobs, business growth and investment.
Local government has demonstrated that they are best placed to provide leadership in the development of their places. No other forum can provide strategic place-based leadership and inclusive economic growth, whilst being democratically accountable to the residents of those places. The democratic leadership role undertaken by strategic local authorities will allow us to drive the agenda and achieve the breadth of action needed to create more resilient local places and underpin economic recovery.
One such example of this is through the Growth Boards which have been established in some counties within the group. Growth Boards bring together a range of stakeholders from across the public and private sector. They are engines for leveraging private sector investment, and create the opportunity to deliver strategic and inclusive economic growth and place-based development on a county-wide scale of the kind that is necessary to level up.
Growth Boards are well-placed in being able to bring together all place-related activity into one, county-wide forum, led by the County Council. The Boards have the potential to convene all related strategies into one comprehensive growth plan – a coherent, evidence-based plan that covers economic, housing, infrastructure and spatial planning endeavours. Growth Boards are unique in being able to act as one voice for the county, influencing and engaging with regional and sub regional bodies, at all levels and across functional economic geographies, whilst leveraging external funding and facilitate accelerated delivery through implementing innovative joint funding and delivery models.
The recent Grant Thornton County Council Network Report ‘Place -Based Recovery’ recommends that ‘Growth Boards should be established in every county authority area. As part of this a statutory duty should be placed on county authorities to convene and coordinate key stakeholders (which could include neighbouring authorities). These Growth Boards should be governed by a national framework which would cover the agreed ‘building blocks’ for growth – powers, governance, funding and capacity.’
Surrey County Council’s Growth Board has been vital in providing oversight of the long-term Covid-19 recovery work, bringing partners from across government and business together and helping to shape and drive economic growth and inclusion as part of a long-term economic plan. Growth Boards are key to tackling the wider determinants of health and driving inclusive economic growth. To reflect this, Surrey’s Growth Board has adopted the socio-economic determinants of health as part of its future work programme.
Hertfordshire’s Growth Board has committed to reinvigorating and reinventing its towns to respond to the challenges of Covid-19 and unlock future economic and cultural potential, for example through their Watford Junction Quarter transformation programme.
Greater Essex’s two business boards - Opportunity South Essex and Success Essex – are working with partners to support the areas and sectors hardest hit by Covid-19 and identify those with the potential to grow most in the future, from life sciences in the UK Innovation Corridor, linking with partners in the Thames Estuary Growth Board, and promoting renewables and green technology.
In Kent, a growth board arrangement is being considered as part of an emerging Kent & Medway Infrastructure Proposition to Government promoting an “infrastructure first” approach to accelerating housing delivery and business growth.
On the question of where government should focus its post Covid-19 levelling up policy to best support regional growth, local government is vital in driving local growth, for example through these Growth Boards. Growth Boards are a critical mechanism for engaging with business and external stakeholders who will be equal partners in the leadership of our places. Moreover, Growth Boards are a key mechanism to allow for bringing strategic planning, transport and infrastructure together with health and wellbeing, inclusion and skills development to enable a more comprehensive approach to growth and development.
With the four counties’ strategic location surrounding London, the need for joined-up, strategic economic planning is essential. Growth Boards have already been critical in developing this position, for example with Surrey County Council’s Growth Board’s link with Surrey Future and in developing an infrastructure plan for the region; and the Hertfordshire Growth Board Growth Programme, aligned with the economic recovery Plan developed by the LEP.
The strong coordination between our counties and their Growth Boards will allow for collaboration both locally and at scale, creating the potential for joint ventures in the coming years.
Whilst Growth Boards have been proven to successfully navigate and engage the tiers of local government, we suggest the BEIS Committee views the levelling up agenda as part of a wider view of public sector reform, which we expect to be informed by the anticipated Devolution and Recovery White Paper. The review of the structure and devolved powers of councils provides the ideal opportunity to drive forward the pivotal role of local government, for example in coordinating these Growth Boards, to kickstart growth and level up communities.