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District councils should take ‘key role’ in devolution proposals

District councils should take the reins on devolution to ensure it improves services and outcomes through better collaboration across the board, a report published by local government experts has recommended.

The University of Birmingham’s Institute for Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) argues that two-tier working has “stood the test of time” – meaning district councils should take on a leading role to drive reform in shire areas during times of devolution.

The academics found that districts are “particularly well-placed to instigate and lead collaborative projects because they are closer to the communities they serve” due to the size and nature of their services.

They also identified five key themes that would influence effective collaboration of authorities: leadership, selflessness, trust, momentum and risk.

The selfless aspect recommended that districts might have to put in more resources or effort than they are set to gain from a project to make sure communities benefit fully.

The study also suggested that districts need to develop a “clear strategy” to make sure they do not lose momentum and slip into procrastination, especially during start-up phases. They should also develop collaborative and diligent skills within their staff, especially as they are “smaller and more focused bodies”.

It argued that the national representative bodies for local government should encourage councils to collaborate by working together, an issue which the District Councils’ Network (DNC) should address.

DCN chairman, Cllr Neil Clarke, said: “’Building Better Collaboration’ [the report] provides further evidence of the central role played by district councils in delivering better outcomes for communities, and emphasises the importance of collaboration across boundaries and sectors in achieving this.

“Districts are integral to such collaborative arrangements, and the ‘selfless’ behaviour identified by INLOGOV as a critical success factor is indeed ‘completely role-appropriate for districts’.

“THE DCN welcomes the report’s findings and will continue to promote the ‘preeminent collaborative leadership skills’ of districts to influence decision-makers, develop future work with our partners and provide support to our members.”

The report was launched during the joint County Councils Network/DCN summit on devolution held in London.

Part of its recommendations during the event included councils “paying heed” to three main factors which influence how they should work together at an individual, organisational and structural level.

These included the requirement that district councils nurture talented leaders to drive collaborative working, as well as improve performance by developing a cross-agency ‘organisational culture’ – including counties, central government departments, the voluntary sector, clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs).

Finally, on a more structural level, district councils should work together to overcome regulatory and national policy obstacles.

“In practical terms, this means district councils shouldering a bigger share of the costs for innovative projects (economic growth, early intervention, homes or shared services) delivered for the good of the people and places they serve than they will get back in direct benefit,” the report said.

In September, a survey by the DCN suggested that nearly half of district councils across England wanted to join a combined authority in order to “strengthen local economies” by playing their part in the “drive towards greater devolution of powers”.

The survey also showed that as many respondents wanted to see responsibility for economic development devolved downwards to individual district level as wanted these powers to be vested in combined authorities – involving many districts working with their county councils and with LEPs and CCGs.


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