We need a real devolution deal

Amy-Grace croppedDevolution is a great opportunity.  After years of oppressive centralisation, devolution deals offer local and combined authorities a chance to break free and forge their own distinctive economic and social destiny.

Devolution is not, however, without significant risks and challenges. Our new joint paper ‘The Real Deal: Pushing the parameters of devolution deals’, a collaboration between the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI), explores the restrictions in the current devolution agenda, and presents ideas for new types of deals, heralding a more progressive devolution.

For us it is increasingly clear that present devolution – while a unique opportunity – is flawed. The deals may have started to reverse some of the problems of over-centralisation, but devolution in its current form is too constrained by the Treasury’s economic and social model, and cowed by ongoing austerity, in which the poorest areas have suffered the most.  As a result, devolution has been shaped by a limited deal-making process of narrow negotiations with Whitehall, making it stacked in favour of Whitehall and limited in terms of what it deems important.

As such, the ability of local authorities to think and act progressively has been squeezed. What we need instead is a new devolution settlement between central and local government that empowers local areas to forge their own answers to the challenges they face. We need a real deal.

This publication starts to think through what real devolution deals could look like and how they could potentially herald a progressive and enduring social, economic, democratic and environmental future.

‘We need a new devolution settlement that empowers local

areas to forge their own answers to the challenges they face’

In our report we outline eleven ideas for further devolution deals and make recommendations for employment policy, transport, energy and environmental policy, housing and land use, health, procurement, local banking, higher education, lottery funding and the democratic process.

Each of these recommendations are grounded within an overarching framework for devolution, which advocates a phased programme of devolution alongside wider organisational reforms, such as the relocation of core departmental functions away from Whitehall.

Across all our recommendations the need to empower local decision-making is key. We advocate comprehensively devolving the design and delivery of employment support provision to the local level, as we believe that local government is best placed to understand both the supply and demand factors within local labour markets. The substantial devolution of transport powers is also essential, alongside the integration of the strategic transport powers and funding currently exercised by other bodies. The institution of these powers at regional level will be the key to progress, with the first step being to renationalise the UK’s rail network under a regional accountability structure.

We also advocate the same principles in addressing challenges within the housing sector, where we propose devolving planning, delivery and funding powers from the Department of Communities and Local Government to councils, in order to address local housing shortages. To make this happen, we also recommend that Right to Buy be reconsidered. This will ensure that all property sale receipts go straight to councils and housing associations, rather than to central government, enabling them to build one-for-one replacements for sold properties.

In the case of health and social care, we go further, and propose that a fairer devolution deal must be struck, providing more money for devolved health services. We recommend that no further devolution of health and social care should take place until there is an easing of NHS and local government austerity. Such a change would provide a more fertile context, in which devolved health and social care is able to effectively integrate and thereby increase the likelihood of better health outcomes.

These ideas go with the grain of existing devolution deals, but also seek to broaden their scope and significantly push the parameters toward a more progressive and ambitious devolution agenda. We do not claim to be offering a comprehensive manifesto for how to do devolution in England, and some of these ideas will have greater relevance in some localities than others.

More voracious thinking and action will be required if devolution is to be turned into a genuinely progressive agenda – but we can only start from where we are now. As such, we offer these recommendations in the hope of providing food for thought for those responsible from taking devolution from rhetoric to reality, and to provide a progressive glimpse, into what we should aim for.


Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 years ago

In other words, “the left didn’t win the last General Election, so we’re going to try to get our “progressive” agenda implemented through devolution”. Nice try, but I don’t think it’s going to fool anyone…

Stephen Horscroft
Stephen Horscroft
7 years ago
Reply to  Baldessaro

The whole point of devolution, surely, is that if people want a particular ‘agenda’ in their community they should be able to influence it!

Richard Hatcher
Richard Hatcher
7 years ago

The report contains many good ideas for more radical policies for combined authorities, including the need to democratise them. But it is framed as though the sole obstacle to local democracy is centralised control by government. This is not the case: there are significant opportunities in the existing CA constitutions for much greater democratic participation in their structures and processes which those in power – the leaders of the constituent councils, most of them Labour – are choosing not to make use of.

Take for example the West Midlands CA. The Board and other top-level committees where the strategic decisions are made comprise the council leaders and representatives of the employers from the Local Enterprise Partnerships. There are no representatives of trade unions, users of services, or community organisations. Trade unions have been allocated seats on eight lower-level committees concerned with policy delivery, not formation, alongside employers’ representatives, but again no users or community representatives. There are many other committees where there is where membership is restricted to councillors and selected advisers. A similar model operates in the Greater Manchester CA. The constitutions of both CAs actually allow for the co-option of members to committees including the CA Board itself but there is no sign of this being enacted to open up these bodies to public participation.

Another case in point is CA Scrutiny committees. The WMCA Scrutiny committee comprises councillors and again a LEP representative but no equivalent from the unions, let alone from users and communities. The constitution allows for additional lay members to be co-opted but there is no sign of it happening. The committee is due to meet just four times a year, which is hopelessly inadequate to hold the CA to account. The House of Commons committee report Devolution: the next five years and beyond is heavily critical of the lack of democracy in CAs and calls for Scrutiny committees to “be developed […] as a result of deliberate efforts to hold active discussions at local level, with residents involved in designing new and more open methods of scrutiny.” There are no signs of this taking place in the West Midlands or elsewhere.

The report calls for more participatory and deliberative democracy in CAs. The measures proposed above are immediately practical first steps. We could go further. For example, the constitution of the WMCA doesn’t exclude the option of an elected Assembly. If it’s right for London why isn’t it right for the West Midlands, and for every CA? Why not start with an elected Forum of representatives of citizens, with at least advisory powers, perhaps drawn from forums for each portfolio area?

Of course the government has no interest in democratising CAs. But neither, it is clear, do the council leaders, predominantly Labour, who run them, as is demonstrated by their refusal to advocate and adopt the significant measures to open them up to public participation which are available to them to implement right now. One consequence is the dominance of CA control by white men. It may well be however that as the top-down and exclusionary character of CAs becomes increasingly clear in practice it will provoke local popular campaigns to challenge it.

(See the Birmingham Against the Cuts website for articles on CAs and local democracy)

7 years ago

Hi Richard

Thanks very much for your comment, you raise some really interesting points and I’ll definitely be taking a look at those links.

Best wishes


Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top