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Making the devolution revolution work

It’s time we take the politics out of devolution to ensure deals are dictated by local need, writes Mike Cherry, national chairman at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

One in three people in England now live in a combined authority (CA) region. Following their election in May, the six CA mayors across the country are overseeing a collective budget of £1.3bn for this year alone. It’s safe to say the devolution revolution is well underway.  

The small firms that make up 99% of the business community are now wondering if devolution will bring the tangible benefits they were promised by those who were elected as mayors.

Last year, a survey of FSB members found that the vast majority (70%) of those based in England with an opinion on devolution support the principle of giving more powers to local leaders. Almost two-thirds (63%) feel devolution is good for their individual businesses.

On transport, skills and planning, entrepreneurs are hopeful that devolution will promote a more coherent approach to investment in the areas that matter to them. That includes channeling investment in a way that maximises its impact. With regards to transport, for example, FSB members want to see investment in the local roads where most passenger journeys take place.

While they agree in principle that devolution is a good thing, in practice many feel left out of deal-making. Only one in seven (14%) felt they had been consulted on the devolution process in their area. More than half (57%) of those with an opinion on devolution feel they cannot contribute to ongoing decision-making.

The National Audit Office has warned that CAs risk becoming a ‘curiosity of history’ if they don’t put transparency first.

New leaders are being handed substantial budgets. They need not only to consult on how that money should be spent to generate local growth effectively, but also regularly provide evidence of how they’re bringing direct benefits to their jurisdictions.

It’s encouraging to see that engagement is already happening in a number of regions. For example, the mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, invited local FSB representatives to be part of his new Business Advisory Group over the summer. We look forward to similar groups being established in other areas – groups that reflect all voices within the local business community. What we can’t have is any one business group or sector dominating conversations.      

Quite simply, we need to take the politics out of devolution. With talk of new deals all over the country, it’s critical that local need, not political allegiance, dictates the state of play.

Equally, the success of devolution will hinge on effective collaboration between new and existing local leaders, not least those currently responsible for heading up LEPs. LEPs do fantastic work in supporting small firms right across England. More than half of our members (53%) with an opinion on LEPs believe they represent the interests of their local business community.

New mayors should work with LEPs to ensure they have the tools they need to achieve their aims. That includes encouraging central government to produce comprehensive business data at an LEP level, including on firms that are not VAT-registered, so partnerships can tailor local growth strategies effectively. 

Small firms are the engines of local growth. In an uncertain trading environment, they need to see the effective collaboration promised by devolution becoming a reality.



Top Image: Neustockimages


Waster   23/10/2017 at 22:30

The sad fact is devolution is a complete waste of time and yet another layer of bureaucracy. Better to have provided lower rates in that area than to pour money down the drain on these follys..

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