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Devolution and decentralisation have to be fair, equitable and offer hope

John TizardGreater devolution and decentralisation to the English cities and sub-regions must inevitably be a critical element of the public policy for the next few years. This is a given.

However, it is essential that such a policy is developed in partnership with local government, at both a national and local level. There should be no top-down approach, and all areas should gain from it, even if the pattern and depth of devolution varies between places and sub-regions. Certainly, no place should be disadvantaged as a result of the deals already in place and those which are yet to come. This is not a call for uniformity across the country or some neat, centrally designed model. Rather, it is a plea for equity and for fairness.

And to make this devolution work, it is also vital that responsibility is not devolved without the necessary accompanying resources and power. Money is going to be tight, but this should not be used by central government as an excuse for offloading responsibilities, which places, and in particular local authorities, do not have the resources to address.

Local government is the appropriate, locally democratically elected and accountable body to take on devolved powers and resources. And where new, sub-regional bodies are required, they too should be accountable through elected local political leaders – whether directly elected mayors or indirectly through council leader boards, which in turn should be accountable through local councillors to local people. Certainly, more quangos are not what are required at a time when, more than ever, greater accountability and public confidence are the priorities.

Devolution has to be about more than economic growth and infrastructure investment. It must embrace the full range of civil government and all those public services associated with civil government.

Future devolution and decentralisation should build on past experience. Total Place and to a lesser extent Whole Place Community Budgets, demonstrated what can be achieved when local public budgets are pooled or aligned to meet local need and local objectives. Local authorities and their elected politicians should surely be able determine how public money is spent in their area. To do this effectively, they will obviously need to collaborate with other public agencies but ultimately, within a national framework for devolution, they should be able to decide on priorities, and be accountable to local people for their decisions.

Such a national framework has to be agreed between government, parliament and local government. It has to determine what should be national entitlements, and national policy and resource allocation decisions, versus what can and should be addressed at local level.

To maximise the potential of such devolution, it will be essential for public bodies and other local organisations to collaborate to achieve agreed outcomes. They must be ready to share and above all, to let go.

Central government has a role (and indeed a duty) to redistribute resources on a fair and equitable basis between regions and places, with a view to reducing rather than enhancing inequality and economic social imbalances. In addition it is essential that all English spending departments must sign up to a shared and common agenda. For far too long, each department has had its own version of localism, with its own chosen local champions. This has to change from May 2015 onwards.

Finally, government must ensure that public bodies are able to efficiently share data, and have as much long term financial certainty from which to plan as possible – even if there is further austerity.

All of this must be set within a context whereby Whitehall and Parliament respect and trust local government – for which, in turn, local government must be willing to devolve to parish, town and community councils and to neighbourhoods. Local government must work more closely with other local authorities, and build mutually beneficial, long-term relations with the voluntary and community sector.

In considering local resources available to address need in a place, it is vital that local authorities take into account social capital in communities, neighbourhoods and the voluntary sector as well the economic capital available in local businesses. All should be harnessed for the public good, though just as local government resents being coerced by central government, so too it must avoid such behaviours towards local organisations. Here, influence and persuasion is the name of the game; not control or dictate.

To maximise the potential of such devolution, it will be essential for public bodies and other local organisations to collaborate to achieve agreed outcomes. They must be ready to share and above all, to let go. In particular, they need to constantly consider whole systems solutions and break out of their own silos and vested protection zones.

The next few years are going to be very exciting but also very challenging. If the future in England is to be greater devolution and more decentralisation, which offers hope to communities across the country, then this requires a new settlement based on values, principles, subsidiarity and mutual trust between central government and local government, and between local government and communities. Without these basics at every level in terms of behaviours, I can guarantee that devolution will be remembered as little more than election rhetoric.

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Sceptic
Sceptic
9 years ago

Such an important issue, yet sooooooooooo incredibly dull. I could have fallen asleep halfway through this piece. Is there any way of making this stuff more interesting? Someone give John Harris from the Guardian a call to make a film about it … just someone *do something* to make all this real for, and relatable, to people on the ground.

“Central government has a role (and indeed a duty) to redistribute resources on a fair and equitable basis between regions and places, with a view to reducing rather than enhancing inequality and economic social imbalances” Must come as news to a Government who introduced the exceptionally regressive New Homes Bonus regime.

“…for which, in turn, local government must be willing to devolve to parish, town and community councils and to neighbourhoods” Good grief no! There are some decisions which should never be devolved to that level if a functioning strategic framework is to emerge. Look at the Neighbourhood Plans mess/shibboleth. The lack of any regional targets is crippling the ability of the country to provide for its housing needs while resources are provided to shore up vanity plans. On certain matters we need less “localism” not more.

Baldassaro
Baldassaro
9 years ago

‘Central government has a role (and indeed a duty) to redistribute resources on a fair and equitable basis between regions and places, with a view to reducing rather than enhancing inequality and economic social imbalances’. It certainly has a potential role, but in what sense does it have a duty? Surely, the government only has a duty to implement the manifesto on which it was elected, within the parameters of the law. I’ve searched the Conservative manifesto, which mentions that general inequality has been reduced under the coalition and refers several times to sexual inequality, but contains no commitment relating to regions or places. I’m not aware of anything else that commits a government to reducing economic inequality (except possibly, in the broadest terms, the ECHR, and we all know what they think about that). And even if it did, who would judge what ‘fair and equitable’ means in practice? Just askin’…

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