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Can the centre give up enough power for devo to be meaningful?

As the LGA calls ‘devolution deadlock’ a risk to the economy, John Tizard claims it will be meaningless without adequate funding, the support of citizens and a ‘devolutionist centre’

No one is more enthusiastic and supportive of decentralising power and decision-making in England than myself. It does, however, require central government to ‘grab the nettle’ and devolve political authority to local government. Effective localism has to be based on strong local government, accountable to its citizens.

Devolution of powers at the ‘whim’ of central government is not sufficient, any more than is expecting local government to ‘earn the right’ to have more powers and greater local control. All places must be able to seek powers that are appropriate to their circumstances, and not only those places that central government deems ‘worthy’ of having them.

Thus county areas should be as entitled to devolution as major cities. They may wish to organise local governance to maximise the benefits of greater devolution, just as urban areas may decide to form combined authorities. The bottom line is that these should be matters for local determination rather than ‘central diktat’, although there needs to be dialogue (and ideally agreement) between Whitehall and the local authorities involved.

For many years now, local government has made the case for devolution and greater control over the wider public sector in its area. This has been regarded as core to local government’s ‘place shaping’ role, exemplified in the Total Place programme. There is compelling evidence that such an approach leads to more effective use of resources, which, given the current under-funding of public services, surely make it attractive to both central and local government alike.

‘Local government should encourage the public to

be part of a social movement for effective local democracy’

Sadly, governments of all parties seem to want to hold onto power.

There are a variety of ways in which local authorities can influence as well as control much more public spend. All, or at least a significant proportion, of expenditure and related decision-making could be devolved to councils, from NHS strategic commissioning, school funding, police and crime commissioner budgets and elements of Department of Works and Pensions’ funds such as welfare to work programmes to the establishment of local government-led, place-focused ‘public accounts committees’.

But devolution should principally be about strengthening democratic accountability, and also about making public services more collaborative and outcome focused for places, communities, local businesses and citizens.

Clearly, however, this requires adequate funds to accompany any devolved powers.

Central government specifically needs to determine what policies, services, entitlements and standards should be universal across the country, which of these can still be controlled, and to what extent they can be controlled and varied locally.

Such determination requires ‘real’ and effective consultation with local government, citizens, business, the voluntary and community sector and professional interests. And while I would not advocate a default position of ‘all should be presumed to be devolved’, I would certainly want a giant step in that direction, away from the current culture of ‘Whitehall knows best and should control’.

Similarly, local government leaders have to be ready and willing to devolve to communities and neighbourhoods as powers are devolved from Whitehall. Citizens and their communities have to feel they are part of and benefit from this political advance, and that it is not simply some remote bureaucratic game of ‘pass the parcel’ between Whitehall and town halls.

There is much debate and speculation about the current government’s commitment to devolution but there is no doubt that local government’s appetite remains ravenous. That being said, I appreciate that for a variety of reasons, other parts of the public sector may be less enthusiastic.

As stated earlier, my personal inclination is close to local government’s, although I do have some important caveats.

  1. Devolution of power, responsibility and accountability to local government without both adequate authority and funding, places them in a very dangerous political corner.
  2. Greater local tax-raising powers are critical to the equation but on their own will never be sufficient. Current Whitehall budgets must be devolved but this will not be enough. Public services have been underfunded for many years and government plans are to continue to cut funding especially to local government and services. Local taxation is insufficient for another fundamental reason. The huge disparities in infrastructure between regions and places requires a national approach to fund and complement local and regional programmes.
  3. Local government nationally and locally should be very careful not to allow itself to be seduced by the pursuit of powers unless and until there is a progressive and agreed approach to funding. I strongly believe that local government should be actively pressing government on this, as well as demanding an end to damaging austerity. It should also be developing meaningful partnerships with business, and the voluntary and community sector to make the case for greater devolution on the right terms, including adequate, fair and equitable funding.
  4. Above all, local government should be encouraging the public to support and be part of a social movement for effective local democracy based on strong local government and communities and a robustly progressive devolutionist centre.

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