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Put people at the heart of English devolution

The English devolution programme is gathering pace and it is crucial that local authority leaders consider five issues when they are combining to seek new devolved powers from government.

1. Be clear about what is right for their area or sub-region. Local government should be pursuing devolution on its own terms. They should have a clear vision for what is being sought and an equally clear narrative to explain the benefits of the proposal, the processes required to establish new arrangements and the structures necessary for governance and delivery.

2. Ensure a robust consensus among participating councils and their leaders; and an understanding of how they will collaborate at all stages of the process, and how any differences will be resolved to the common good. They need to demonstrate in advance what the governance arrangements will be and how decision makers will be held to account, including political scrutiny, public recall and potential dismissal of elected mayors; and similarly for combined authorities.

It is essential that there is clarity of roles, responsibilities and accountability of new organisations and posts, as well as of the residual local government and wider public sector. Citizens, civil society and businesses are entitled to understand where power lies and how it can be held to account.

We need English devolution to lead to thriving, fairer and more

cohesive places – not a frenzied, competitive race to growth at any cost.

3. Involve the public and other key stakeholders in the design of the new arrangements and the ‘ask’ of central government. This can be tricky to achieve given the haste of government to agree new arrangements and its view that these are matters for technocrats. The commitment to hold an advisory public poll in Durham is good news. There should always be consultation with the public and key local stakeholders, including large and small business, the wider public sector and the voluntary and community sector. The involvement of these groups should go further than mere consultation to embrace discussions and plans for ‘double devolution’ to communities and neighbourhoods. Devolution must be much more than merely the transfer of power from Whitehall to town hall or sub-regional mayors.

On top of this, councillors and their councils should have a right to determine whether they are prepared be part of a new devolution settlement. This cannot be left to a few leaders and senior officers. Local government has to have the final say and should be engaged from the start of the process. That is not to say that council leaders should not lead. Of course they should, and this devolution agenda requires focused, strategic, flexible and values driven local political leadership. Thankfully, we are seeing good examples of this across the country.

4. Press government to pass over the necessary resources, not only to meet the new devolved responsibilities but also to sustain core public services. Of course, if more resources are devolved, it is likely that ‘more can be achieved with slightly less’. The ‘Total Place’ programme was on the brink of demonstrating this. Local authority leaders should, in my view, be arguing strongly for a new form of Total Place. They should also be demanding adequate grant and other resources from central government, and the power to raise local taxes in order to safeguard services such as adult social care, children’s services and leisure. The public needs these services and will hold local authorities to account for their availability and their quality.

In the heat of the seductive offers for new (especially economic) powers, local authority leaders and their councils should not pursue more powers and responsibilities only to find that they end up taking the blame for more cuts, and consequently end up being the ‘fall guys’ for central government.

5. Local leaders should make the case for investment in, and the importance of, social capital and communities. To succeed and be sustainable, economic growth and development requires strong local communities, well-educated and healthy people and social cohesion.

What is required is not simply investment in social capital and communities, but redistribution of resources between and within places and sub-regions, and the targeted application of public services to secure a more equal and just society. We need English devolution to lead to thriving, fairer and more cohesive communities and places – not a frenzied, competitive race to growth at any cost.

Central government has to be ready to show its commitment too (the current collapse of the steel industry comes to mind). Rhetoric and ‘some’ devolution is not enough. As leaders of place, local governments and representatives of communities have an opportunity to seize the devolution agenda and use it to benefit their communities, but only if they recognise that what matters most is the wellbeing of local people and local democracy. People should always be at the heart of the debate and the action.

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Stephen Horscroft
Stephen Horscroft
8 years ago

Interesting article from John. The recent report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on the role of DCLG in ensuring effective devolution echoes some of these points.

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