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03.02.16

Devolution process has been rushed and shady, MPs find

There has been a significant failure to set out clear and measurable objectives for devolution, rushed timetables for negotiation, and a lack of openness with the public about deals, MPs have found.

In a report published today, the Communities and Local Government Committee said that the government must go further with its devolution deals, ensuring the public is kept in the loop of decisions.

The committee first set out to investigate whether Greater Manchester’s deal and health devolution was a model for other areas, but widened to review the way in which devolution is moving ahead in other regions recently.

At the top of concerns was a lack of public consultation and engagement at all stages of the devolution process. The committee slammed the government for treating the scheme like a transfer of power from national to local politicians rather than to local communities, recommending that Whitehall must start communicating with residents about how deals with affect their areas.

This openness must be present along the entire devo pathway, including in the preparation of proposals, during their negotiation and after the agreement.

“Engagement shouldn’t stop once a deal is done – when devolution reforms have had the chance to make an impact, the public should be consulted on their experience of how it is working in practice,” the report said.

“The committee also presses the government to publish all information on devolution deals online so the public can access a range of details on the proposals, deals, and negotiations.”

People must also be able to understand exactly who is responsible and accountable for public services, but MPs said this duty will usually fall on the mayor – who will inevitably be the figurehead held to account regardless of whether they actually have powers over the service in question.

Similar transparency issues were also highlighted across Greater Manchester’s health devolution deal, as reported by PSE’s sister title, National Health Executive. As well as feeling that accountability arrangements were more aspirational that thought-through, the committee also warned that patients and residents must start being consulted and engaged with.

“Public engagement is particularly important in the case of health devolution where the complexity of the systems in place make understanding the consequences of change more difficult in an area where the public’s response is likely to be more emotional,” the report said.

Labour’s Clive Betts MP, chair of the committee, said: “If we are to achieve this local leaders and the government must make far greater efforts to communicate with and engage the public so they embrace devolution as a positive development too.

“People rightly want to be involved in discussions and negotiations affecting their communities and local leaders and government need to up their game to make the devolution process as transparent and engaging as possible.”

Responding to these claims, the LGA’s chairman, Lord Porter, said today: “While it is right that devolution deals are not imposed, but negotiated and secured by local places, we recognise the need for greater public engagement throughout the deal-making process and are working with councils to support them in this.”

Porter also said the “timely report” emphasised the need to extend devo opportunities across all areas and took advantage of this to urge Whitehall to spread discussions to non-metropolitan areas too.

Pushing deals further

Another major finding in today’s report is the need to perceive current deals as merely a starting point for local regions rather than the destination, a view greatly shared by Sheffield’s leaders.

In fact, the committee recommended that one of Sheffield’s main requests – that the government should apply subsequent devolution deals with other parts of the country to Sheffield’s own package – should be widespread.

“Where an area asks for particular devolved powers but is refused, the government should ensure powers are available to it if they are given to other similar areas at a later date,” the report said.

“The committee believes that, by the end of this Parliament, the government and local authorities should move to a position of 'devolution by right' with the government announcing a package of powers on offer to local government.”

Communities secretary Greg Clark MP had already said Sheffield’s request is “exactly the sort of ingenuity” he hoped for, claiming he “expects very much” this approach to continue. But Whitehall has not yet confirmed if this particular request will be granted to Sheffield or other areas.

On this, Porter commented: “Devolution is a massive opportunity to help ensure services are tailored to best meet the needs of local people and we want to see ambition from government departments that matches that of local places in considering the powers devolved and different models of governance appropriate to both cities and county areas.”

“Places should also be able to build on their initial deals and take advantage of a broader range of powers to fully capitalise on the opportunities for their communities and businesses.”

A DCLG spokesman said the government shared the Committee’s ambitions for a greater transfer of powers, and underlined that ministers have been “repeatedly clear” that deals are a “bottom-up process and there is no one-size fits all approach”.

“Every deal is bespoke and provides arrangements that are relevant to each local area. Going further than the deals already made in places like Manchester, Cornwall and the Tees Valley, we’ve listened to local leaders and announced in the Autumn Statement that local government will retain 100% of business rates revenue by 2020 – giving them the means to become self-sufficient.”

Betts said the Committee will return to this subject shortly with another inquiry looking at fiscal devolution and council’s ability to retain 100% of business rates.

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