As Westminster and Whitehall continue to grapple with the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the ability of our residents to get on in life will depend on tackling challenges much closer to home.
The provision of a local bus service, the sustainability of a local high street, or how easy it is to buy or rent a home close to your family and friends, are just some of the concerns facing councils and their residents in non-metropolitan areas. Challenges such as these cannot be solved from a desk in Whitehall and nor should they be.
In February 2018, with the national devolution agenda at a standstill and Westminster focused on agreeing a plan for Brexit, the LGA’s People and Places Board launched the Post-Brexit England Commission to explore the issues and opportunities facing the towns, villages and communities of non-metropolitan England.
Over the past 18 months, we have hosted a series of roadshows across eight regions talking to local people and representatives of councils, businesses and industry on their future ambitions and the local policy levers needed to help them achieve them.
At each roadshow, we heard from people keen to leverage their areas’ unique strengths and make the most of the opportunities of the coming decade for their communities and local economies (see case studies, right).
In the South East, participants wanted greater control over infrastructure investment to ensure efficient freight access to ports and onto the global market. In the South West, representatives highlighted the opportunity a domestic successor to the Common Agricultural Policy could present to re-thinking farming and land management in the UK’s largest region. In the North East, attendees outlined how a locally designed UK Shared Prosperity Fund could help local partners better address regional inequality.
As well as evidencing these distinct perspectives across rural areas, our roadshows revealed a range of common concerns over which councils have limited or no control.
Often referenced was unreliable mobile connectivity making it difficult to access services on the go; a disjointed skills system making it harder for businesses to fill local vacancies; and a sub-national export support system not set up to assist micro-businesses that drive rural economies.
As a consequence, many are frustrated at the top-down process of national decision-making standing in their way and limiting their ambitions to press ahead and secure a better future for their residents.
In light of our findings, the final report of the Post-Brexit England Commission calls on government to give us the freedom to lead our local areas and tackle these challenges head on.
Our recommendations set out how we can grow more productive and inclusive economies, shape future investment in rural areas to meet the needs of local people, and create better connected places. Our message is clear: if we are backed by government, councils have the potential to do even more to support their places to achieve their ambitions.
As my chairmanship of the LGA’s People and Places Board comes to an end, I would like to thank my fellow members for their hard work and the dedication they have shown to fighting their residents’ corner. We have been united in our determination to improve the lives of our residents and ensure the views of those outside cities are heard.
I wish them, and the new chairman of the board, every success in continuing to ensure that the voices of our great rural communities and coastal towns are heard in government and Whitehall.
‘The future of non-metropolitan England: the freedom to lead local places’, the final report of the LGA’s Post-Brexit England Commission, can be downloaded for free, along with the commission’s interim report, from www.local.gov.uk/devoforall
Developing a Leicestershire-China strategy
Leicestershire County Council has worked closely with Leicester City Council, local universities, colleges and other key partners to strengthen international links with China. This work builds on a historic twinning agreement between Leicestershire and Sichuan that celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018.
The 30th anniversary also marked the launch of the Leicestershire-China Strategy, which identified four key pillars the county will use to build sustainable connections with partner regions in China. These are education, people-to-people (culture), sport and tourism.
Local leaders have established the ‘Leicestershire China Forum’, a network of key stakeholders from the region who come together to guide and drive the Leicestershire-China Strategy. Bringing partners together has enabled them to share knowledge and build relationships, which has helped to foster an approach to China that is producing positive outcomes for the partners involved as well as the wider region.
A key element of this work has included supporting local businesses to export to China. In response to challenges faced by local businesses, the councils secured European funding to establish a China Ambassador programme through which Chinese students based in Leicester and Leicestershire help local businesses to develop links with China. At the same time, it has presented a fantastic opportunity for Chinese students to gain first-hand work experience with local companies.
Mobile connectivity in North Yorkshire
Across North Yorkshire, residents have outlined their frustrations with the poor levels of mobile connectivity in the places they live and work. As a result, North Yorkshire County Council has taken action to improve coverage for its residents.
The council held discussions with mobile network operators (MNOs) to find out about the barriers restricting rural coverage and identified several local issues within the council’s remit that it could take forward.
However, following deeper exploration, the council also found that local mobile coverage data, provided by MNOs, is unrepresentative of the realities on the ground in some areas of the county. Where coverage is supposedly of high quality, residents report being unable to make calls or establish a signal.
To gain a more accurate picture of the quality of local mobile connectivity, the council had to commission its own independent coverage survey. It revealed that while 65 per cent of areas had coverage from at least one MNO, few areas had consistent coverage from all four.
There were also several places with no coverage (‘not spots’) owing to challenges with local topography and rural sparsity, meaning they were not commercially viable for MNOs to cover.
Following the survey, the council explored the case for using public subsidy to build a mast in a ‘not spot’ area for MNOs to use. It asked all MNOs to share their future mast build plans to ensure there would be no overlap with future commercial roll-out.
Thanks to the public nature of the Government’s new Emergency Services Network (ESN), built by EE and the Home Office, the council was able to establish those areas that would be covered by EE. However, other MNOs were unwilling to share their future commercial roll-out plans or even their current mast locations.
The council secured capital funding from the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Local Enterprise Partnership to commission the building of a mast. However, no MNO has yet come forward to use the proposed infrastructure.