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Three local social experiments that prove the power of place

Devolution offers opportunities for place-based social policy. Our new report features experiments in the UK and Europe which prove the potential for new metro mayors, if they are prepared to seize the moment, says Tony Armstrong

All told, the metro mayoral elections felt like a damp squib. With some regional variation, turnout was around the 30% mark, about par for local elections. So, not matching police and crime commissioner elections as the low watermark for political engagement, but not a bold reinvigoration of local democracy either.

There are a few reasons for this. Devolution has always been more of a technocratic exercise than a democratic one. The deals were done in secret without any real public engagement, and their aim has been to grow the local economy rather than empower local people. Getting the public excited was likely to be a challenge from the outset.

What’s more, it has felt like the air has been seeping out the devolution process ever since George Osborne was sacked as chancellor. And then when it finally came time to vote, they were of course overshadowed by Theresa May’s snap general election.

However, six metro mayors are now in post, responsible for developing strategies to grow their local economies. The extent of their powers vary according to the deal established, but each has access to funding for housing, transport and skills and are likely to have influence on wider policy areas, while attracting government funding and business investment.

Greater Manchester is the combined authority whose devo deal is furthest advanced, including powers over criminal justice, health and social care, where Labour’s Andy Burnham is now mayor.

So despite inauspicious circumstances, we need to seize the opportunity metro mayors present to decentralise power. Successive governments have attempted to push power downwards, driven by a growing understanding that solutions to many of our most stubborn social challenges lie outside of Whitehall’s reach. By giving local areas control of a wider range of levers, services can be shaped around the distinct needs of every person and the full scope of local assets can be harnessed to achieve social change.

Yet while we have seen a number of ‘place-based’ policy initiatives over the years, we have yet to see a fundamental shift where power resides: England is still one of the most centralised countries in the developed world, and a truly localised social policy remains a work in progress.

Lesson for combined authorities from Finland, Sweden and Manchester

A new Locality policy paper outlines the steps we need to take to finally make decentralisation stick and harness the potential of place-based strategies to save money and create better services. It draws on Locality’s experience of working with communities, local authorities and central government to innovate from the ground up. It also introduces case studies of social policy experiments that have been successful across Europe, as part of Locality’s work with the InnoSI research programme.

InnoSI is a pan-European project focused on innovative approaches to investing in people. Our paper highlights some of the key projects – from Finland, Sweden and Manchester – which show the potential of local initiatives, cross-sector collaboration and social action. There is much that our new combined authorities can learn.

The project in Kainuu, Finland, called ‘May I Help You’, was created through user-driven public service development, in which citizens, municipalities, and other stakeholders collaborated to design a public service initiative. The programme brought unemployed young people to help elderly people living alone with small, everyday tasks. The evaluation of the programme found that participants valued the process, felt engaged by the dialogue and that they were genuinely listened to. These positive outcomes show how user-driven policy development can increase service productivity and quality, as well as enhancing democratic participation.

In Sweden, a partnership was built between Gothenburg city and nine non-profit organisations around the reception and integration of unaccompanied asylum seeking minors. The partnership enabled more flexible and timely policy implementation, with more integrated services, and cost the same as other subcontracted providers.

And in Greater Manchester itself, an active labour market programme – Working Well – aimed to tackle barriers to work through the co-creation of personalised approaches by keyworkers and clients. Devolution was the key enabler of the programme, as Greater Manchester combined authority was able to design a solution which suited the local climate and worked across local agencies. The failures of the previous work programme provided useful lessons, which, combined with local knowledge, enabled a tailored programme which worked for the local area.

These examples demonstrate the exciting potential in devolution and place-based policy. The introduction of metro mayors is a clear opportunity to go further and create real change. We’ve chosen Manchester as the location of our annual convention this year.

We’ll also be in Manchester for the final hearing of our Localism Commission, chaired by Bob Kerslake, which is asking what a new wave of powers, rights and levers for local communities might look like. Devolution offers us a big chance to empower communities to make change happen from the ground up. Our new city leaders need to seize the moment.

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