Boris Johnson wants to 'rewrite the rule book' on devolution as Coventry speech sets out 'skeleton' of his levelling up vision

Boris Johnson has promised to "rewrite the rule book" on devolution by offering extra powers to shire counties and towns as he described strong local leadership as the "most important factor" in the success of his levelling up agenda.

In a major speech setting out his vision for his flagship domestic policy, the Prime Minister said that powers such as control over local bus services did not necessarily have to be given to metro mayors and that other forms of devolution were possible.

He said that while the UK was one of the most imbalanced and centralised nations in the world, the creation of metro mayors in areas like the West Midlands was reversing the trend and aiding the recovery of some areas after decades of decline.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) visits the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry ahead of a speech in which he will insist his levelling-up agenda is "win win" and will not be a case of "robbing Peter to pay Paul" as tries to keep traditional Tories in the South on side. Picture date: Thursday July 15, 2021. Pic: PA

Mr Johnson described local leadership as "the most important factor in levelling up, the yeast that lifts the whole mattress of dough, the magic sauce, the ketchup of catch-up".

But speaking at the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry, the PM said he wanted to now go further with the process of empowering local leaders started by former Chancellor George Osborne.He said: "Because if the big cities are beginning to catch up, it is the rest of the country, those historic famous towns or our shires, where local leaders now need to be given the tools to make things happen for their communities.

"To do that, we must take a more flexible approach to devolution in England, we need to rewrite the rulebook, with new deals for the counties and there's no reason why our great counties cannot benefit from the same powers, we have devolved to city leaders.

"So that they can take charge of levelling up local infrastructure, like the bypass they desperately want to end congestion and pollution to unlock new jobs or new bus routes, plied by clean, green buses, named with batteries, pioneered in this place, because then they get the chance to control the bus routes.

"Or they can level up the skills of the people in their area because they know what local business wants and needs because they're working with them every day."

Mr Johnson also announced that 15 areas including Todmorden in West Yorkshire and Stainforth in South Yorkshire would be getting money as part of the Government's £3.6bn Towns Fund.

The speech comes amid concerns that the Government has cooled its interest in devolution, with a White Paper on the subject delayed for months and now subsumed into this Autumn's Levelling Up White Paper.

Deals handing extra powers to mayors in West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire have been agreed, but in North Yorkshire and Hull and the East Riding talks are only just getting underway.

But he said leaders with a vision for how their local area can attract more jobs and improve services should approach himself, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick or levelling-up adviser Neil O'Brien "and we will give you the tools to change your area for the better".

He said: "And it can be done. Because there's no intrinsic reason why one part of this country should be fated to decline or indeed fated to succeed.

"The towns and cities that people say have been left behind have not lacked for human ingenuity, they're not been short of people with courage or intelligence or imagination, and there's no place in this country that does not have something special about it, something about their scenery or culture or history or tradition, some selling point, unlike anything else, or anywhere else in the world.

"And they don't think that they're left behind, and they're right, they think that they're the future or they could be the future. And they're right about that too. And all they need is the right people to believe in them, to lead them and to invest in them and for government to get behind them. And that is what we're going to do."

Carl Les, Leader of North Yorkshire County Council, said: “The Prime Minister’s speech is extremely encouraging. We firmly believe that North Yorkshire has huge potential to be a Rural Powerhouse and to act as a catalyst for green economic growth, leading the way on climate change initiatives and opportunities.

“For these aspirations and all our others to become reality we desperately need a strong devolution deal – something we have long lobbied for.

“We are ready to embrace all of the opportunities outlined in the PM's speech, we just need the go ahead.”

But Greater Manchester metro mayor Andy Burnham was less impressed. He said: "Much of the Prime Minister’s analysis today was right and I don’t in any way disagree with it - far too often people’s life chances and health are still determined by the postcode they are born in.

"But what was missing was credible action that would actually change the reality of people’s lives here in the North of England. You don’t level up by throwing money at towns here and there and creating a chewing gum taskforce.

"You do it by backing city-regions like ours to create a London-style transport network with London level fares that will unite towns and cities and transform the life chances of the 2.8 million people who live here. I urge the Government to give us the power and resources we need and make levelling up a reality here in the North."

In a press conference during which he was challenged on allegations that his past remarks have given a green light for online racism, the PM was asked where his clear strategy for levelling up is.

"I am respectfully going to urge you to just go back over some of what I said because I do think that in all fairness there was at least the skeleton of what to do," Mr Johnson responded.

He did say a levelling up policy paper is expected to be published later in the year, where more detail should be fleshed out.

Responding to the speech, Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “Local leadership must be a core principle of levelling up and county deals are a promising sign the government intends to decentralise more powers further.

“However, places such as Cumbria as well as North Yorkshire and York have worked hard to get rid of overly-bureaucratic two tier councils and instead have worked to deliver a streamlined structure of councillors and a directly elected Metro Mayor. On the North Bank of Humber and in Cheshire and Warrington we need Metro Mayors deals to ensure greater accountability.

“The Prime Minister is right to recognise the huge potential that can be unlocked from a properly rebalanced economy and it’s now time to translate that into visible change.

"The Prime Minister said the Government wanted to see the emergence of local leaders who would 'take responsibility' for local problems.

"We want local leaders to come forward but obviously with these powers must come responsibility and accountability," he said.

"That's what we want to see and people taking charge of their local area, leading it, and not just seeking opportunities to point out differences between themselves and central government, but actually taking responsibility for problems and solving them with our help."

And Erica Roscoe, senior research fellow at IPPR North, said: “The evidence is clear - levelling up can only be achieved if places are empowered to level up for themselves.

"From better living standards, to better work, health and a better democracy – leaders across England are beginning to show the difference that devolution can make, but limits to their powers and competition for short term funding initiatives mean they cannot realise their communities’ full potential.

"We need a fair, transparent settlement in which power is shared between places and government – not piecemeal projects where government continues to hold all of the strings because that isn’t real, progressive devolution. The Prime Minister must let go to level up.”