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11.11.15

Unlike city deals, devolution must have accountability and scrutiny – PAC

The wave of devolution deals being signed between Whitehall and local authorities cannot be based entirely on the perceived success of previous city deals, which in fact lacked robust scrutiny, evaluation and accountability, an inquiry has found.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published a report today (11 November) highlighting recommendations of paramount importance to upcoming devolution deals expected to be made in the upcoming months.

It found that the government currently uses its 2012-14 city deals with the eight largest cities outside London as a basis for further devolution packages, despite lacking appropriate evidence that the first wave of deals were effective.

And even if the city deals have been successful, this does not mean they are the best model for wider devolution, especially when devolving control over public services, the PAC has said.

Its chair, Meg Hillier MP, commented: “Devolving power and responsibilities carries the risk of weakened accountability. The fact that the government cannot adequately explain where responsibility lies for the success or failure of city deal programmes should therefore sound an alarm.

“It is also disappointing that there is no effective mechanism for comparing results in different cities, nor to scrutinise the knock-on effects projects in one area might have elsewhere.

“This becomes particularly significant if the perceived success of individual city deal programmes is cited by government as evidence its overall approach to devolution is working and does not require improvement.”

She stressed that wider devolution deals, such as that agreed with Manchester and ongoing agreements with Sheffield and the north east, will garner “considerable scope” for tension between local government as a result of growing responsibilities over public services within a devolved budget.

“When things go wrong, it must be clear who will be held to account. Taxpayers must understand who is spending their money, how that money is allocated, and where responsibility lies if the system fails to deliver good value,” Hillier continued.

The DCLG has already accepted that the failure to monitor and assess arrangements from when city deals were kicked off makes it significantly harder to evaluate their progress and pinpoint the most effective programmes.

This alone should already be enough to ensure the department now provides clarity about how it determined funding to be devolved to local services – as well as develops a consistent approach to measure this impact, alongside a robust assessment of local capacity to both implement and run services.

The committee urged DCLG to work closely with local areas to strengthen regional scrutiny and accountability arrangements and ensure public engagement in all processes before any negotiations are finalised and initiatives are implemented.

A recent example that confirms the need for greater accountability and engagement was the outcome of this month’s Citizens’ Assembly meeting in South Yorkshire. A representative pool of 31 residents rejected the current Sheffield devolution package agreed to in October, instead opting for a Yorkshire-wide regional assembly as their preferred devolution model – ideally without a mayor.

The only region that has so far promised to poll its residents before committing to the north east devolution package with Whitehall was Durham County Council.

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