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A new horizon for devolution

Source: PSE Jun/Jul 17

While many local government observers speculated that ‘devolution was dead’ following the publication of the three main parties’ manifestos, there was still some significant commitments for the sector, explains James Maker, head of policy and communications at the County Councils Network (CCN).

The Conservative Party’s manifesto explicitly ruled out the requirement of a directly-elected mayor to secure a devolution deal to county areas, which repeated commitments in both the Liberal Democrats and Labour manifestos for more flexibility within devolution models.


For the CCN, this is an important change in direction after two years of advocacy. The network’s cross-party county leaders have campaigned tirelessly to remove, in their eyes, the arbitrary requirement for a directly-elected mayor to secure ambitious devolution deals.


Whatever happens in the general election, a significant roadblock to devolution and public sector reform in county areas could be about to be removed – and we could see a renewed appetite for devolution and real progress in transforming local public services.


In the Conservative manifesto, the broader phrasing on devolution of a more ‘consolidated’ approach, providing ‘clarity’ and a ‘common framework’ for different administrations, led to concern from some sector commentators that we were likely to see a return to centralism.


The language can be interpreted in different ways, but regardless of who wins the election, these types of commitments suggest that some form of devolution ‘guidance’ – rumoured at the turn of the year – could be in the offering in the coming weeks.


This is important and we need not revert to our knee-jerk aversion to a more structured approach.


CCN has long called for this, dating back to its 2015 report with IPPR. Indeed, since the debates on mayors and local government reorganisation intensified, it has become increasingly obvious that clarity and a clear policy framework were needed.


Some will no doubt mourn the passing of bespoke devolution settlements, back-room deals and ‘bottom-up’ proposals.


Although there is merit to the mantra of ‘no one size fits all’, for too long now some have been obsessed with heralding the virtues of a complete hands-off approach from government without acknowledging that it has held back devolution and reform in county areas, creating confusion, competing proposals, tensions over geography and ultimately wasting valuable public resources.


It isn’t just CCN, however, that has called for a new, more structured approach. Earlier this year, Localis published a report on the Industrial Strategy, arguing that the government needed a new approach to devolution, proposing 47 ‘strategic authorities’ based broadly on county and city geographies.


Recognising some of the additional complexities of two-tier governance and accountability, one of the key recommendations in the report suggested that in two-tier areas, the strategic partnerships should be led by the county authority – a realisation that counties can fulfil the role of a combined authority, acting as the accountable body for a suite of devolved powers whilst forging strong partnerships with district and neighbouring councils.


While some inaccurately labelled this as ‘reorganisation’, these formal, or informal, partnerships were a sensible solution to ensuring the benefits of devolution and the Industrial Strategy are not confined to a small number of cities.


Localis’ work followed on from a report by IPPR North, which again suggested that the basic building blocks for devolution should be built around upper-tier authorities – arguing counties have the scale, organisational capacity, economic and geographical identity to compete with, and complement, the city region agenda.


With a broad commitment across all three parties on the need for a new approach to devolution in county regions, there is now space for a renewed discussion over these proposals. Counties and their partners will need to set out their offer to the new government.


Looking ahead, while devolution was not a focal point of the manifestos or campaigns, there are still opportunities to enhance the role of local government across public service transformation and regional growth. In the context of Brexit, and the incoming administration’s preoccupation with negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, there is a compelling case to drive down powers from Westminster.


The government will have a host of incoming domestic challenges to contend with whilst simultaneously negotiating Brexit, including the housing shortage, raising the country’s productivity, and managing the long-term pressures on local services.


Counties have shown they do have the answers to many of these domestic priorities, and stand ready to work with the incoming government. Counties have already proven themselves to be the local and regional units of government outside of the major cities able to do business with national government; for instance, look at the cross-boundary partnerships that have driven sub-regional transport bodies such as Midlands Connect and the Economic Heartland.


Importantly, with government preoccupied by Brexit, it will not have the time nor capacity to entertain competing bids and proposals. Therefore, building on the work of IPPR and Localis, reform must be built on the county geographies and structures already in place. With a new phase of devolution likely to be on the horizon, we look forward to setting out the county case to the new government.




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