Tories to give shires the powers of a city
The Conservatives are set to woo countryside voters by pledging to introduce 'shire deals' for local authorities in their general election manifesto.
City Deals already struck by the coalition government have handed powers to the country's biggest cities in return for more responsibility for economic growth.
They let local people decide what to do with cash from economic growth rather than handing it over to the Treasury in London – allowing regions to invest in everything from roads and business parks to training and new jobs.
Now the Tories are set to placate frustrated backbenchers in the party's rural heartlands by offering similar powers to shire counties like Kent and Essex.
"City deals have been a proven success – there's clearly an appetite in those communities for them," Bob Neill, the Conservative party's vice-chairman for local government, said.
"It's a logical extension, having given those additional opportunities to the big cities, that we do the same for the big strategic shire counties in England, with all the councils in that area working together."
Support for city deals has grown steadily within the Cabinet, paving the way for an expansion of the approach in the next parliament.
But a number of Tory councils have struggled to make headway with officials at the Department for Local Government, who fear the coalition's vocal support of the plans aren't being backed by action.
Some Tory backbenchers are now hoping the flexibility of the scheme could see smaller county councils combine together to get more powers from Whitehall.
Mark Pawsey, the Conservative MP for Rugby, said he hoped Warwickshire could share services effectively with local authorities in Oxfordshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire.
"The great danger is that if the Birmingham conurbation comes together and lobbies for funds the shire counties are left out in the cold," he said.
A Department for Communities and Local Government source said the government was moving towards providing packages of support giving more money and powers to county voters.
And William Hague told MPs before Christmas there were "major opportunities for county councils and rural authorities in general" to "take up the challenge" of seeking more powers.
The offer could help shore up the Tory vote in rural areas where Ukip is offering a strong challenge to David Cameron's party.
Polling by Opinion Business Research commissioned by the Countryside Alliance last autumn found 86% of rural voters felt alienated by the coalition's policies.
Just 22% of those in the countryside were prepared to back the Tories, compared to 17% for Ukip and 20% for Labour.
"It's great to see a manifesto commitment, but my immediate note of caution is what strings are attached?" asked Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit.
"We're seeing a commitment to city deals, but already starting to see there is a shape expected of them."
He said the Treasury was putting pressure on councils to look to become combined authorities or adopt elected mayors. It's been reported that a deal for the Leeds area is being held up because of this.
"County councils have expressed that while they want the ability to put forward their own proposals, those shouldn't be contingent on a combined authority," Carr-West added.
"The whole value of this process comes from allowing local areas to come forward with the deal that works for them. If you start saying yes, you can have a deal but we expect it to look like a combined authority or an elected mayor, you're missing the point."