Plans for the biggest shake-up in english local government for more than 30 years have been delayed, raising fresh questions over the governments commitment to level up prosperity across england.

The white paper on devolution and local recovery, which was expected this month, has been shelved until next year as the government prioritises battling the covid-19 pandemic. according to people with knowledge of the situation.

Bob kerslake, former head of the home civil service, who is chairing the uk2070 commission on how to close the north-south divide, said he had been told it was postponed until 2021 and the local government reforms scaled back.

Its emphasis will be less on devolution, lord kerslake said. it does feel like it has gone backwards. the risk is these things cant wait a year. they need to be addressed now, notwithstanding covid.

The initial plan would have redrawn local government by creating more unitary authorities from the current overlapping system of county and district councils.the intention was for the new authorities to receive fresh powers and funding if they agreed to forming cross-boundary combined authorities with directly elected mayors.

Just a handful of combined authorities have been set up since labour introduced them in 2009, such as greater manchester, tees valley and north of tyne, with just seven elected mayors, and an eighth in west yorkshire coming in 2021.

Some areas, including cumbria, greater lincolnshire and somerset, have already submitted plans to the government to create combined authorities and mayors but these are now pending.

Jim oneill, the former treasury minister who negotiated several mayoral deals for the government, told the financial times last week that levelling up had stalled,

The minister in charge of devolution, simon clarke, resigned on september 8 for personal reasons which is also delaying progress.

Mr clarke had promised the local government association in july that the white paper would appear in september and would connect local recovery with levelling up. it would pave the way for many more elected mayors and more unitary councils, he said.

Those single-tier authorities would be more efficient, he said, at a time when councils face big budget holes because of the pandemic and the government is trying to contain spending.

However, the plan met fierce resistance from conservative-controlled district councils, which feared being absorbed into wider county-sized areas.the plan to merge councils has prompted so much anger among our grassroots, its probably second only to the governments planning white paper in terms of things that have riled people, said one tory mp.

But there is division in the party. the northern policy foundation, a think-tank set up by tory mps in former labour red wall seats in the north and midlands, said it hoped the revised policy would be radical. tinkering round the edges isnt going to cut it when trying to overcome centuries-old structural issues, said tom lees, its director.

The county councils network said the delay was disappointing. ministers must follow through on the governments commitment to extend devolution in england and set out a clear blueprint of how this can be achieved in county areas in the white paper.

The ministry of housing, communities and local government said:we have set out a clear commitment to level up all areas of the country by empowering our regions through devolving money, resources and control away from westminster. we are considering a range of options and will set out our detailed plans in the white paper that will be published in due course.