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Navigating the challenges of devolution

Source: PSE Jun/Jul 2016

Mark Duddridge, chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), discusses the importance of an evidence-based approach to devolution in order to navigate the challenges it brings.

Devolution is hard. Just ask Gateshead. Or North Somerset. Or Norfolk. Or Yorkshire. In all these cases – and there are others – local authorities are grappling with the expectation that they come together under an elected mayor in return for greater devolved powers from Whitehall. 

Agreeing mayoral deals in non-metropolitan and two-tier local authority areas will be no mean feat. As well as the potential for political, economic and geographic tensions, communities secretary Greg Clark MP has made it clear he won’t sign off devolution deals without full support from LEPs. 

The role of LEPs 

As a chair of an LEP you’d expect me to argue that’s a good thing, but I also happen to believe it. I don’t think we can underestimate the importance that government is placing on LEPs in delivering its localism agenda, both as partnership brokers and the conduit through which local growth funds are channelled. 

Local authorities need LEPs as much as LEPs need local authorities, and it’s no good railing against the architecture of devolution when you could – and should – be getting on with it. 

That’s perhaps easy for me to say when our LEP area embraces just two local authorities, Cornwall Council (which has been unitary since 2009) and the Council of the Isles of Scilly. We signed the UK’s first non-metropolitan devolution deal almost a year ago and, together with government and our (single) NHS clinical commissioning group, there are just four parties to the agreement. 

Compare that to our neighbouring LEP in Devon and Somerset which has 22 devolution partners, and you start to appreciate the scale of the challenge. 

Challenge and focus 

Where I think LEPs can add real value to the devolution process is through both challenge and focus. Local authorities are, after all, intrinsic partners in all LEPs – it’s not a case of “them and us”. What LEPs do is bring the private sector voice to the table, and as we are partnerships this includes others like universities and the voluntary sector. There are some 2,000 private sector business people involved in the 39 LEPs across England, all committed to growing their local economy. That should be a rich and experienced resource for government to drawn on. 

Evidence-based devolution 

We were fortunate in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in already having a strong partnership approach to local growth, born from 20 years of targeted European investment programmes and a distinct cultural and geographical region. 

Cornwall Council recognised early on that it was important to demonstrate how devolution could deliver tangible benefits based on a set of evidenced-based priorities, rather than draw up a shopping list and get tangled up in arguments about governance and structures. 

The LEP, which has more private than public sector board members, helped evidence Cornwall’s ‘asks’ of government with support from our business community, MPs and Peers, and was able to challenge and stress test elements of the deal before it was presented to ministers. 

We went to Whitehall with a single voice, clarity of purpose, and shared ambition. We presented a set of offers as well as interventions that met our region’s economic objectives and were aligned with government policy. We also set out clearly who would do what. 

The result was a devolution deal that spans transport, employment and skills, EU funding, business support, energy, health and social care, public estate, heritage and culture. 

Clear roles and responsibilities 

There are clear roles and responsibilities for delivery among the partners to the deal, with the LEP leading the business support, employment and skills agendas, but also feeding into a number of other strands where relevant. 

Through the LEP the role of business has been crucial, and is something local authorities ignore at their peril. 

Given the shifting sands of local government finance and the reform of business rates, the private sector will rightly demand a louder say in how those monies are invested locally in the future. I believe LEPs, properly constituted, are uniquely placed to channel those demands in a positive and collaborative way in the pursuit of local growth. 

I also hope devolution can do more to promote rural-led economic growth and innovation. We hear an awful lot about city-led growth and the Northern Powerhouse, but let’s also champion our rural areas, recognise their contribution, and acknowledge their different needs.

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