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19.08.15

Lord Kerslake: ‘Immense challenge’ to empower local communities and cities

Source: PSE - Aug/Sep 15

As the House of Lords completed its third reading of the Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill, a new inquiry into decentralisation and devolution opened. PSE’s David Stevenson spoke to the inquiry’s chair Lord Kerslake, who is passionate about devolution.

The Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill will be sent back to the Commons in September following the summer recess. After something of a mauling in the House of Lords, the Bill looks somewhat different to how it started. 

For instance, a cross-party amendment to the Bill proposed by Labour peer Lord Warner, which passed by 217 votes to 152, will stop the transfer of regulatory functions held by national bodies – such as those for the NHS – and ensure transferred services “adhere to national service standards”. 

If this amendment is not reversed in the Commons, it will mean Greater Manchester will be unable to take on any regulatory or supervisory powers from the Care Quality Commission, NHS England or Monitor and its successor, NHS Improvement. 

It also stymies the chancellor’s plans to use the Bill as part of his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to drive devolved responsibilities to major cities, which are being spearheaded by the plans for devolving £6bn of health and care spending to Greater Manchester. 

When the amendment was tabled, Lord Warner said: “I am not opposed to using the Bill for devolving NHS functions to properly accountable combined authorities or new public bodies. I just want the Bill to contain clear safeguards which recognise that some essential national characteristics of the NHS should continue to function.” 

During the Bill’s passage through the upper house, Labour and Lib Dem peers also forced through three further amendments, requiring ministers to report annually on devolution, introduce a ‘suitability test’ for devolution, and allowing cities to get devolved powers without the need for a mayor. This last change passed with 182 votes for and 141 against. 

Far-reaching devolution inquiry 

As the House of Lords finished its work, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Reform, Decentralisation and Devolution (for which the LGA provides the secretariat) launched a ‘far-reaching’ inquiry on devolution and constitutional reform. 

The inquiry is to be led by Lord Kerslake, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, who told us: “The work, so far, has been encouraging. We’ve had some very good names come forward to join the panel and a willingness of some quite senior people to give evidence as well. 

“The feedback that I have had is that this is a positive step and could help move devolution on really in every form.” 

Lord Kerslake, recently appointed president of the Local Government Association, said he is a passionate believer in devolution. He told PSE that the proposed legislation “is an enabling Bill as it opens up the opportunity for deals to be done, and to that extent I think that it is welcome”. 

“I do think there is some value in the model that we have got at the moment – the deal-based model,” he said. “There is potential to make progress this way [on a case by case basis]. We know that by focusing on one city you can make sure the powers and additional flexibilities that are given fit the particular issues of that city – so there will be differences of particular emphasis. 

“You could also say that by doing one city, such as Manchester, you are able to make more progress by tackling one city which then provides the route for other places to follow. So, you punch a hole through and others follow behind it.” 

However, he added that we don’t yet know how it will play out by way of controls. 

“One of the amendments that was put through was to have an annual update on how far devolution has gone across the country,” said Lord Kerslake. “I don’t personally have a problem with local deals. But, I do think, you have to [ask] ‘what is the total effect of this?’ and it has to be done in a transparent way, so everybody can see what the progress is.” 

On the metro-mayor debate, Lord Kerslake added there are varying views, but there may well be a case for a metro-mayor in some sub-regions or individual cities. 

“The question that people have raised in the Lords debate is: should that be a requirement of devolution, or are there other models that would give you the necessary confidence in the local governance to devolve?” he said. “I think the Lords felt that it shouldn’t be assumed that the only way you can achieve effective governance [is through one model].”

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Getting local devolution right is ‘challenging’ 

Lord Kerslake, who rose to head of the Civil Service in a long public career, having also been a past chief executive of Sheffield City Council, told PSE: “We have a massively over-centralised state in this country. And we would get better UK government and better local government if we were to devolve powers.” 

He also believes devolution has to be both about powers and funding, and it has to enable areas to make progress on economic and social issues.

Lord Kerslake did warn, however, that pursuing the devolution agenda completely on a model of city-based deals could mean that local empowerment and neighbourhood-level devolution get “missed out”. 

“There is, perhaps, some risk that if this is all done as city-based deals that the local empowerment and neighbourhood level of devolution gets missed out,” he said. 

“To what extent can we devolve power more widely and close the gap between the governing and governed is quite interesting. I can say that when I was in local government, for example in Sheffield, I used to say that government was remote but I could also frankly be realistic and say that sometimes the council was remote from some communities that it served. 

“We have to find ways of empowering local communities as well as empowering cities.” 

Lord Kerslake did admit that achieving the ultimate aims of devolution was going to be “immensely challenging”. His inquiry, which will submit its report and recommendations in March 2016, will consider devolution of legislative and fiscal competence to local authorities within the UK; governance arrangements for decentralisation; and a sustainable funding system for local government. 

The cross-party panel will also look at the devolution of legislative and fiscal competence to and within England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; implications for Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament; as well as wider constitutional reform. 

“What I’m interested in, as part of the inquiry, is looking at what might be a coherent [and] effective way of securing further devolution and what is most likely to secure the kind of outcome we are seeking to achieve,” said Lord Kerslake. “The ‘exam question’ is why, given that it has been an ambition of incoming parties into government for many years – be it Labour or Conservative – that progress has been as limited as it has.” 

The panel, appointed by the qualifying officers of the APPG, will consider written evidence in October and oversee oral evidence sessions in the autumn.

To submit evidence email:publicaffairs.team@local.gov.uk

Indicate in your written submission whether you (or your organisation) are willing to give oral evidence to the inquiry.

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