'Unclear and inconsistent' devo process threatens 2017 elections

After last week’s warnings that devolution could “come to a standstill” following the Brexit vote, the government’s flagship scheme has suffered yet another hard-hitting blow in a new report – which highlighted a stark lack of accountability and contingency planning enveloping devo deals.

The report, published by MPs in the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), questioned the adequacy of proper local arrangements for scrutinising devolved services, arguing that the government must provide stronger leadership and greater clarity in “multiple areas” of the whole devo process.

It also criticised the role of Local Enterprise Partnerships in the scheme, calling it “alarming” that these bodies “are not meeting basic standards of governance and transparency, such as disclosing conflicts of interest to the public”.

This, joined with the fact that the timetable to implement existing deals in the coming months is looking “extremely challenging”, could pose a significant risk to the proposed May 2017 mayoral elections, the committee said.

Its outspoken chair, Labour MP Meg Hillier, said “many questions still hang over the process” despite mayoral elections already booked for next year.

“Devolution involves big changes to the way large sums of taxpayers’ money are spent on their behalf,” she said. “Parliament and the public must be assured that devolved spending is subject to effective scrutiny and there are clear lines of accountability for delivering value for money.

“These vital arrangements are still very much work-in-progress and must be confirmed as a matter of urgency.  The government has set an ambitious timetable to implement devolution deals but it must not skip over crucial details in a blinkered race to the tape.

“It must be far clearer about what these deals are intended to achieve and set out in detail where accountability for areas of public spending will lie.”

The report – which analysed the 10 deals signed in the 18 months to April 2016 – also pinpointed concerns related to funding for different areas, with per capita funding ranging from £11 a year in Greater Manchester to £27 a year in the West of England deal, for example.

This is because, according to MPs, the 30-year funding streams “have not been based on any robust assessment of each area’s local needs” – with many settled purely based on areas wanting equivalent funding to previously-agreed deals.

They recommended that, by November this year, the government should set out plans for how it will ensure that local scrutiny of devolved functions and funding “will be both robust and well supported”.

Inconsistent ‘bottom up’ rhetoric

MPs in the committee called on the government to be “specific and clear” about what it is trying to achieve through devolution, explaining how it will be able to monitor and judge the success of these ambitions.

“The government should also be clear on where it believes that outcomes are a matter for local leaders to decide and where centrally imposed targets are more appropriate,” the PAC recommended.

It argued that the local experience in negotiating devo deals has been inconsistent with the government’s intended ‘bottom up’ approach – a point previously raised by Cllr Sir Stephen Houghton, chair of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority, who said the government has been “fluid” about what can be included in devolution.

“The rhetoric surrounding devolution is that local areas are the driving force behind the deals. However in practice central government is stipulating certain requirements, such as around local governance, without making them sufficiently clear up front,” the report continued.

“For example, some local areas have expressed dissatisfaction that they have to adopt a mayoral model as a pre-condition of a devolution deal, even in cases where they do not think the model appropriate to local needs.

“The timing of devolution deal announcements has been driven by central government milestones such as spending reviews and budgets. Central government has not set out clearly what is required from local areas in putting forward devolution proposals, and equally what is and is not on offer from central government in return.

“There are unresolved tensions between a stated wish to let local areas put together innovative arrangements and a central desire to impose particular governance models.”

Coming just a few months after similar criticisms from the Communities and Local Government Committee, today’s report ultimately indicates that these problems are persistently lingering over deals despite more being signed every few months – with a string of new ones currently on the way.

But the DCLG argued the report actually “misses the point of devolution” instead, which is to “end the one-size-fits-all approaches of the past and hand power from Whitehall to local people who know their areas best”.

“We’ve agreed 10 landmark devolution deals across the country covering 30 per cent of the country, with local leaders accountable to their residents including through the election of mayors to oversee the new powers,” a spokesman added.

“This is a voluntary, bottom-up process based on local proposals demonstrating strong local agreement and clear accountability.”


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