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Local areas should embrace English devolution – but on their own terms

The coming few months are going to be dominated by the advance of the government’s English devolution programme. This programme shows no sign of deceleration, and neither does the response of much of local government including council leaders of all political parties.

It would be too easy to be cynical and say that the government has hit a raw nerve of desperation and desire not to be left out. Actually, I think that the government has hit a rich seam of ambition and excitement in local government with this initiative.

The programme has been deliberately (and I think, prudently and sensibly) designed such that no two places must necessarily have the same (one size fits all) deal and level of devolution and decentralisation. Rather, a pragmatic patchwork approach is being adopted. Provided this meets local needs and ambition, there is little reason to challenge the approach unless it leads to greater inequality of access and outcomes to services and opportunities, which most reasonable people would expect to be standard across the country.

I regret that the drive to devolution and decentralisation, which I support in concept, has not been preceded by a national debate on subsidiarity. By this, I mean what services and what standard of services should any citizen in England expect to be able to access, irrespective of where they live? And, which services should be subject to greater local discretion and control in terms of whether they are provided and to what standard? And, which should be universally available but delivered to standards determined locally?

I have never subscribed to the rather thin argument based on the so-called postcode lottery by those most inclined to adopt a centralist ‘Whitehall knows best’ stance. Outcomes have often varied enormously between places, even in the most centrally directed services, and needs and popular choice differ between places. That said, some services such as a decent education should surely be available to every young person, irrespective of their address or social background? Is it time to define national entitlements? When and if services and their budgets are devolved, it is vital that those areas that are not the beneficiaries of the devolution are not adversely affected.

Alongside or even before there was a debate on subsidiarity, maybe there should have been a wider debate on a new constitutional settlement including guaranteeing the democratic independence of councils. Local government and the combined authorities require powers and resources to enable them to take make devolution work. This cannot be a system based on ‘earned autonomy’, or Whitehall licence, or with key controls remaining in the centre when accountability has been transferred to localities.

Local government is facing the most serious onslaught ever on its financial base in the coming spending review. It has already taken a huge hit in terms of reduced central government funding and has had its own limited tax raising powers severely restricted. Local authorities should be careful not to accept (or worse, possibly demand) additional powers unless they are confident they can fund their enactment.

After consultation with local people, they should be allowed to decide the democratic governance arrangements for devolution and not have to accept government-imposed models.

Total Place and other initiatives have irrevocably demonstrated that more can be achieved for any given level of total spend when decisions are taken locally and without departmental and agency based silo constraints. However, even in such a scenario, there are limits to what can be achieved if budgets are being slashed by over 40%.

Still, for all my misgivings, the government has made an offer, and I believe local authority political leaders should positively embrace the English devolution and decentralisation programme. They should do so boldly and without hesitation but on terms that work for their place and citizens.

Inevitably, this will require some level-headed analysis and risk assessment, including ‘political’ risk assessment. It will require some hard bargaining between local authorities, between them and other local agencies, and even more so with central government. Local government must decide what it believes should be devolved to locally democratically accountable bodies and not simply accept what government offers. For example, why is there so little demand to devolve DfE powers and responsibilities in respect of schools?

‘The next few years will shape the future, but this future must not be derailed by undue caution at the local level, overzealous and damaging government cuts, prescription from central government or local authorities being seduced by the idea of more powers without more resources’

Devolution also requires adequate funding so as to avoid it becoming not so much the transfer of power as the transfer of blame and political bruising arising from cuts. And local leaders must be courageous enough to say ‘no’, if and when what government is offering is not right for their places.

I believe that the greatest benefits of this programme will come when local authorities and their partners, in a spirit of ‘double devolution’, move resources and power to communities and neighbourhoods, and parish and community councils. This will require, in particular, a new settlement with the local voluntary and community sector and makes a compelling case for local public funding of strong and effective VCS infrastructure bodies.

Genuine and sustainable localism and devolution will require:

  • a national debate and some agreement on the English constitution and subsidiarity including national entitlements
  • bold and ambitious local government leadership, willing to challenge central government and, putting egos aside, focus on collaborating locally
  • central government politicians and civil servants really willing to let go of powers and resources
  • a recognition that economic growth requires growing healthy and well-educated social and human capital too with strong and sustainable communities
  • an effective but fair system of national redistribution of resources between places
  • central government making resources available for infrastructure investment and the sustainability of quality public services
  • robust risk analysis including financial, operational and political risk by local government
  • ‘double devolution’ to energise empowered communities and neighbourhoods
  • strong and effective local VCS infrastructure based on the combined authority, or whatever local vehicle is politically managing the devolution agenda
  • a new form of collaborative leadership across all sectors
  • experimentation, innovation, and a readiness to take measured risks

This is an exciting time. The next few years will shape the future, but this future must not be derailed by undue caution at the local level, overzealous and damaging government cuts, prescription from central government – including insistence on elected mayors – or local authorities being seduced by the idea of more powers without more resources.

It will be fascinating to revisit this subject in 12 months’ time.

 

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