Johnson Vows to Hand Powers to Towns and Counties in England

Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed to create a new breed of local mayors to take more power over England’s towns and counties, as he seeks to tackle inequality across the U.K.

His aim is to revive the economic fortunes of some of the most neglected parts of the country, helping them to catch up with major cities and the capital, London, which is Britain’s economic powerhouse.

The premier outlined the idea in a speech designed to put some meat on the bones of his central domestic mission: To “level up” the forgotten regions of the U.K. and spread opportunity beyond the wealthiest areas.

Under a “more flexible approach to devolution in England,” newly created mayors for towns and counties could take charge of planning reforms, designing transport routes, and overhauling skills training, he said.

“If the big cities are beginning to catch up, it’s 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,” Johnson said in Coventry, central England on Thursday. “We need to rewrite the rule book.”

Pandemic Impact

Johnson’s domestic agenda has been derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced him to lock down the country three times and only gradually lift restrictions as vaccines are rolled out.

The Covid crisis hit just two months after Johnson won a large majority in the December 2019 general election, after pledging to complete Brexit and then “level up” regions of the U.K.

Yet his emphasis on boosting the economies of regions outside London and the southeast -- traditional strongholds for his ruling Conservatives -- has alarmed some in his party who fear their districts will suffer.

In his speech at a battery plant, Johnson mapped out his aim to relaunch his leveling up mission after the pandemic, promising it won’t come at the expense of Tory heartlands in the south.

Boosting Powers

He announced new “deals” for counties beyond major cities, to give the rest of England the same powers held by mayors of the biggest urban centers like Manchester and Birmingham. Control over infrastructure, skills provision and economic support could be taken by new mayors, he said.

While the government will set the strategic direction and provide the right environment to create jobs, the private sector will need to step in to deliver on investment in these regions, he said.

Johnson also promised to invest in infrastructure, repeating his idea of connecting England to Scotland via high-speed trains, and to improve the quality of life in communities by reviving high streets and cutting crime.

A “white paper” strategy will contain more detail of the “leveling up” agenda in the fall.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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