This report considers how the decentralisation process is impacting on England's counties, and how these diverse areas can – by securing locally-specific powers and governance arrangements – boost their economies and improve their services.

There is a strong case for devolution to counties, both in terms of their significant role in relation to economic growth and public service reform, and in terms of the patchwork approach to democratic reform that is taking place across the UK. It is clear that, in the context of an unprecedented wave of devolution in England, there is a real opportunity for non-metropolitan areas to bid for increased powers to boost their economies and better serve their populations.

This report explores how the current devolution process is playing out for county areas, considering the case for why central government should devolve to such areas, and identifying what makes counties distinct from city-regions. It draws upon case studies from five county areas that are in the process of developing innovative and creative models for governance that will enable their local councils and other public bodies to better work together, and describes some of the fundamental tensions and issues that have emerged from the process of submitting devolution bids to central government.

The government is right to insist that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to devolution dealmaking. The complex governance of counties makes this all the more relevant, but in the absence of any published guidance or due process, counties too often perceive they are faced with a set of unwritten rules. In this report we make a series of recommendations about how county devolution – indeed the devolution process generally – could be rolled out more effectively in the months and years ahead. These are, in summary:

  • greater clarification of the purpose, process and timescale for devolution dealmaking with greater coherence and collaboration between central government departments
  • establishing a principle of coterminosity with local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) for economic development deals, including cases where combined authorities work together within a LEP footprint
  • an explicit acceptance that other models of accountability – beyond directly elected mayors – might be more appropriate for county areas, including the idea of an elected county mayor
  • greater emphasis on sharing good practice between areas working on devolution deals and building local capacity to agree and implement local arrangements.