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Weak local-central relations ‘put devolution deals at risk’

Sustainable devolution could be at risk due to weak central-local relations and poor understanding of who will lead the agenda in the medium and long term, the Institute for Government (IfG) has said.

Launching a guide designed to help central and local public servants make devolution deals work, the think tank said there are still a raft of challenges brought about the entire devo process, particularly tied to Whitehall decision-makers.

Because the post-election devolution deals process was extremely compressed, with many councillors having to rush over the summer to prepare their bids ahead of the September deadline, many local authorities are still unclear about future timelines, the IfG argued.

And while the Spending Review says the government will “work towards further devolution deals with other major city regions”, the organisation claims it is unclear what will happen to emerging deals that are not from “major city regions”.

The organisation was also told by local public servants that they feel working relationships with Whitehall have deteriorated over recent years, with large cuts to budgets leading to “less capacity to engage locally”.

“As our work on relations between the four governments of the UK has shown, Whitehall is not always adept at understanding what is happening on the ground, or how to deal with asymmetric distributions of power and authority,” the guide said.

“Devolution deals will inevitably lead to greater asymmetry and will reduce central government’s direct authority in many areas. Whitehall will need to come to terms with its new role.”

The guide also recommended that the Treasury, which has already been “critical” in driving forward devo deals, must stay involved during the implementation phase to avoid agreements “becoming watered down and ineffective”.

“Without a powerful champion for the deals process, departments will be able to row back on the pledges that were made when an ‘in principle’ agreement was signed,” warned the IfG.

“It is not yet clear how the Treasury sees its role in the devolution agenda going forward – while the Spending Review document discussed the role of the DCLG in continuing to ‘oversee delivery of devolution deals agreed with city regions and other areas’, it did not outline a similar future role for the Treasury.”

The report reiterated claims from an earlier IPPR document published in November than certain “unwritten rules” on devolution could block fruitful deals. It claimed that if Whitehall had clarified these rules in advance, it “may have avoided wasting the precious time and effort” of councils asking for devolution of policies that they were never going to get.

But the guide also outlined a series of positive opportunities on the horizon if effective devolution is achieved, including boosting economic growth, increasing innovation and improving public services.

Dr Jo Casebourne, IfG’s programme director, argued now is the “best chance we have” at seeing devolution actually happen given the chancellor’s “strong political leadership”.

“While the ‘devolution revolution’ presents opportunities, there are several specific challenges for those responsible for carrying it out. This guide is designed for public servants both in Whitehall and working locally to help them navigate through these unchartered waters,” Casebourne added.

Some of the tools it offers to councillors and Whitehall servants is sections on setting up a deal-making process, assessing local and central readiness for devolution, and understanding the impact of deals on citizens and public service. 

PSE has asked the Treasury for comment on its long-term relationship with the devolution process, but has not yet heard back.


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