George Osborne presented this Budget as another step towards his ‘devolution revolution’.
In two important ways we do see the devolution agenda advancing in today’s announcement: both in terms of depth with new criminal justice powers handed over to devo-flagship Greater Manchester and in breadth with the extension of devolution deals to counties.
Three new deals were announced in Greater Lincolnshire, East Anglia and the west of England.
For those of us who have argued for years that our prosperity and sustainability as a society depends on a more localised political and economic settlement, it would be churlish not to applaud this progress and recognise that Mr Osborne has done more than any British politician of recent decades to drive it forward.
Nonetheless, today’s speech raises as many questions as it answers.
Notable were the deals that were not announced.
No Essex, no Hampshire, no North Midlands.
All deals that looked likely just a few weeks ago but which have hit late obstacles.
And there’s a lot left unsaid about the deals that were announced.
Not just in terms of the details and the funding but also in some of the fundamentals.
In East Anglia, for example, Cambridge City Council has rejected the deal as it stands.
It remains to be seen whether any of these deals contain the sort of fiscal devolution that local government told us and The MJ in our recent finance survey that they needed to make their finances sustainable.
Before the election we argued for a deal-based approach to devolution to ensure that different areas could move forward at different speeds and in different, locally appropriate ways.
But we may now be seeing the limit of that approach.
The Government’s insistence on negotiating each detail in isolation and in secret has seemed to hinder progress, as has an insistence on elected mayors which seems to be hardening.
The Department for Communities and Local Government’s position is still that it is possible to do deals without a mayor (as Cornwall, for instance, did) but that non-mayoral authorities will have access to a narrower range of powers.
Yet the message that county and district leaders are taking from meetings with ministers is clear: mayor or reorganisation – or no deal.
County leaders remain for the most part opposed to elected mayors with the result that we’ve seen reports in Hampshire and Oxfordshire of proposals for clusters of districts to create smaller unitaries within combined authorities.
No doubt similar conversation are happening elsewhere too.
Will these sorts of ideas get approved?
Will we really see the abolition of historic counties?
Does the Government have an emergent plan or is this a necessarily, perhaps even beneficially, messy process?
Is Lord Heseltine nearing fulfilment of his 30-year pursuit of unitary authorities and elected mayors?
Today’s Budget doesn’t make any of that much clearer.
Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.