The Cities and Local Government Bill is an enabling bill par excellence – it sets out the institutional framework within which individual arrangements will be negotiated between the Secretary of State and groups of authorities. It will be enacted partly through secondary legislation – mainly statutory instruments. The provisions are mostly generic.
And that is a good thing – but it may be a bad thing too? It’s good that the government has recognised that one size doesn’t fit all and that there needs to be flexibility in the devolution process. It allows for deals that differ according to circumstances – what functions and powers for example will be devolved? It is largely not a top down process as councils can bring forward their own plans.
But enabling legislation leaves a lot to ministerial discretion. The Secretary of State, for example, can say no to proposals and has new powers to do so if he/she believes the proposals don’t improve ‘the exercise of statutory functions in the area or areas to which the order relates’. Ministers will be involved in the detail. Fair enough – but will the decisions taken be transparent and based on clear criteria?
Clause 10 gives the Secretary of State powers to make changes to the constitution, governance and membership of proposed joint authority arrangements, and to structural and boundary changes. These will be subject to approval by each council involved and can be made in regulations – with no boundary reviews or public consultation. Somewhat of a relief to some councils who have gone through years of debate over restructuring, and it will mean that necessary changes can be implemented quickly, but it may lead to local dissent. Councils will need to think through how communities can feel included.
And, of course, there are limits to the flexibility promised – notably the central premise that for maximum devolution to happen there has to be an elected mayor. Which may not seem too democratic to residents in those areas that rejected elected mayors in the past (these are different beings though according to ministers – not the same at all).
Crucially, non metro areas aren’t left out by the Bill – but it is really unclear so far what will be on offer for counties, rural areas, medium sized cities. I know from where I live in one of those cities (a district) that forming a combined authority with the surrounding, very different districts, may not work – Baroness Hollis, in the second reading debate, put it well – ‘that the metro-city is not the only model for economic success. Many are not only county but regional centres, key cities that help to rebalance the national economy. Most cannot become combined authorities with adjacent rural districts without diluting their capacity’. There needs to be a tailored version of the finances, powers and resources offered to the core metro cities. The Bill, despite the late addition of local government to its title, still feels metro focused. What we don’t want is two-tier devolution.
What of democracy and accountability? My blog – A confusion of mayors – talked about challenge, scrutiny and democratic engagement. The Bill itself is largely silent on these issues (as would be expected in an enabling bill). But these issues were raised in the debate. Key rationale for devolution – it isn’t an end in itself – are economic and democratic. Somehow, local people, organisations and business need to be involved in the negotiations with central government. And involved in implementation and scrutiny afterwards. Devolution needs to revitalise local democracy, not supress it.
A big gap so far in all this is the caution from government about financial devolution. Mayors, however ‘supreme’, probably won’t be able to raise new additional resources. Power and functions will be devolved but not necessarily the means to make this meaningful. And this is about democracy and accountability too – local people should be able to make real choices between political and financial priorities.
So is this enabling legislation a huge opportunity or a stab in the dark? A bit of both perhaps. It provides the framework for genuine (even if not fully realised) devolution for some areas. The Bill is an outline that shows how devolution could be implemented. It leaves open, though, many questions that will need much clearer answers as the Bill progresses through parliament. And beyond parliament too – revitalising local democracy can’t be done through legislation – it is up to local communities and local government to show how devolution can add to an invigorated democracy – that would be truly enabling, wouldn’t it?
This blog is based, in part, on our recent briefing, written by Hilary Kitchin, Devolution: 2nd Reading of Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill.