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Solace boss: Devolution feels more like ‘de-centralised administration’

Greater devolution in England is “more important than ever” but at times feels more like “de-centralised administration”, according to Solace’s new president Jo Miller.

Speaking to PSE after her recent election win, the CEO of Doncaster Council said she would like to see devolution in England get a “bit more real”, and be more comparable to some of the other devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales.

Miller argued: “I think it [devolution] was an opportunity for local government to act as a first amongst equals to bring public services together, to make sure that the totality of money spent in local places is spent in the best way possible to deliver for local people.”

But she added that “at times it sometimes feels like de-centralised administration rather than people producing real solutions to real local problems”.

Reflecting on Doncaster’s involvement in Sheffield’s devolution deal, which Derbyshire County Councils has launched a legal challenge against, Miller said she and Ros Jones, Doncaster’s elected mayor, have had a “relentless focus on growth, and ensuring good growth that people can participate in by having the right education and skills”.

However, following this year’s vote to leave the EU, Miller said that not as much progress has been made on devolution deals as expected. In fact, the LGiU recently accused the Conservatives of going “walkabout on devolution”.

“We have supported devolution. We have a new government, in effect, and one that post-Brexit has, perhaps, shifted some of its priorities and is refocusing on what it needs to do, in what order and when,” she continued.

“I think it is inevitable that, in this context, there hasn’t been as much progress on devolution deals as we might have expected. There is more work to do to get to the finality of a deal, and what that really looks like.”

Mayor Jones has said that due to the lack of progress, and the legal challenge, it is unlikely the Sheffield’s devolution deal will be finalised by May 2017.

“But I do think there is more urgent need for devolution than ever before,” Miller argued.

Service cuts are inevitable

In recent weeks, a number of local authorities, including Manchester, Sheffield, Dudley and Wolverhampton, have revealed severe budget cuts and service reforms, including reductions in workforce numbers.

Discussing the financial challenge faced by councils, Miller said: “No-one’s job is the same, but certainly in places like this one, we have seen massive change to the funding regime. This is change that we have managed very well and we have innovated our way through some of it.

“However, there comes a point when it is very hard, in fact it is nigh on impossible, to carry on doing that, and I think in a post-Brexit world we have a quite fractured world with a fair number of people left behind.”

She added that “inevitably” there would be services reductions across the country and much rationing.

“We still face a dichotomy in this country that people want Scandinavian public services for American taxes,” said Miller. “At a national level we have people that aren’t telling the truth about the size of the state we can afford, and what that means to people. Nobody is telling the truth about that. Not at a national level.”

As Solace president, she said it is important that the organisation tells this story as part of a broader coalition, so people at a national level can the make more informed decisions.

A full version of the interview with Miller will feature in the December/January edition of PSE.


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