Urgent framework needed to reboot ‘stalled’ devolution deals
The government’s ambitions for devolution have stalled and need rebooting, particularly in non-metropolitan areas, according to a new report by the IPPR North.
The think tank’s report, ‘Rebooting devolution’, said that a lack of clarity from the start of the devolution process means deals have “run into the sand” to the point where there will likely be only six elections for metro mayors this year – despite the foundations laid by the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016.
The report found that the government must now set out a deadline by which it will define its vision and principles for devolution more strongly, while providing authorities considering devolution with a clearer, principle-based framework for negotiations.
“The problems in the devolution process have been endemic from the start,” wrote the report’s author Jack Hunter, a researcher for IPPR North. “With no clear purpose, process or timescale, a culture of centralised thinking in Whitehall, and with intransigence on the part of too many local political leaders, it is apparent that once again the devolution rhetoric is failing to match reality on the ground.
“This is no small issue. If it is to achieve its vision of an economy that works for everyone, the government must put the devolution of powers and responsibilities to the lowest appropriate level of government at the core of its industrial strategy.”
The think tank concluded that despite success in metropolitan areas like Greater Manchester, West Midlands and the Liverpool City Region, the momentum for devolution has largely been lost, with IPPR North noting breakdowns in Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, East Anglia and the north east. The Sheffield City Region’s devolution, for example, has been delayed due to its ‘botched’ consultation.
Hunter argued that rather than forcing together disparate regions, as has been common in non-metropolitan areas, future devolution deals should be based upon a principle of wider county-based geography drawn by a ‘shared sense of place’, while counties could only consider joining forces to enhance their scale in a handful of cases.
“Those areas that have successfully negotiated a devolution deal have been able to demonstrate a history of partnership working and strong relationships with other public services,” Hunter stressed. “The devolution process should seek to build upon existing institutions at the local level and to strengthen, rather than disrupt, joint working arrangements.”
Cllr Paul Carter, chairman of the County Councils Network, claimed that the report “rightly argues” that counties have the size, scale, expertise and coterminosity with partner organisations to make a success of decentralisation aims, “using county geographies as the springboard to deliver better and more localised services”.
“Counties’ ambition for devolution deals has never diminished. In the context of the government’s aspiration to create a more balanced and productive economy, Westminster should place its faith in the strong local leadership already displayed in rural England, and remove the arbitrary requirement for a metro-mayor,” added Cllr Carter.
“Counties make the biggest contribution to the national economy, yet have been blighted by years of under investment in infrastructure, historical underfunding, and skills and growth policies that have been too centralised. The government’s Industrial Strategy will be the perfect opportunity to move to the next stage of devolution, and ensure that county residents and business have the opportunity to benefit.”
He also underlined the fact that the think tank’s report suggests unitary authorities are a viable alternative to mayoral combined authorities, citing Cornwall as an example – despite the government’s insistence that a mayor must be inherent to any deal.
Separate research, said Cllr Carter, shows that a unitary authority on an existing county footprint saves 68% more than alternative proposals, as well as provides the “best platform for securing growth, devolution and public service reform at scale”.
In a statement, the IPPR North added that the government should outline a framework of powers as a template on which individual devolution proposals can be based and on the governance reforms expected from authorities, arguing that a lack of clarity on these issues scuppered the north east deal in particular.
The think tank has therefore advised the government to outline its ‘red lines’ for authorities before they submit proposals, while urging it to be more ambitious by offering comprehensive measures, such as tax revenue retention and powers over social policy such as health, education, and welfare.
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