England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Making devolution work: Six key questions…


Last week we held the first Policy Network event of 2016, our Devolution Roundtable lunch. As the the ‘devo deal’ negotiations get into full swing across the country, it seemed like the right time to hear from councils about their experiences.

Many of us have called for more local devolved powers for a long time, but it’s proved tough to get off the ground in practice. So we, and the attendees, are encouraged by the progress made so far, and believe there are a lot of opportunities.

There was a clear message coming through in the discussion: people want more sharing  of experiences between councils negotiating with DCLG. The deal-based approach the government is taking to the devolution process means that the information available is disconnected at best, non-existent at worst. For many regions the terms of the negotiation are changing so rapidly that even keeping their own councillors up-to-date is a struggle, let alone engaging the public.

There were many thought-provoking points raised during the discussion, but also a lot of unknowns. To realise the full potential of devolution, these 6 questions raised by Policy Network members will need to be addressed:

1. Will the lack of fiscal devolution prevent success?

Participants said that the elephant in the room during DCLG negotiations so far has been fiscal devolution. Some felt that without it, truly local decision-making and planning will not be possible. Essentially councils would still be relying on central government discretion for bigger projects like transport and housing, fuelling fears that local authorities will be given the responsibility without the tools to deliver change.

2. What’s actually on offer and who will be accountable?

There was a sense that there was a lack of clarity on what’s actually on offer. Policy-making by deal is not necessarily a bad thing, Policy Network members said, but they had serious concerns over the secrecy of the process and the lack of transparency.

Similarly, key questions like ‘Who will be ultimately responsible for the delivery of services?’ and ‘Who will be accountable for decisions?’ have yet to be answered. How will the auditing work for both the ‘Devo deal’ process itself and the activities of the new Combined Authorities in the future?

3. Is this council restructuring by another name?

With the way things are currently going, some Policy Network members were concerned that areas with a two-tier system will be pushed towards a unitary model as a result of the devolution process. Instead of bringing decision-making closer to the local level as promised in the Bill, it may actually draw it upwards to a County and/or Combined Authority level.

Boundary setting for the purposes of the regional deals is also contentious, especially in the district councils on the edges of the regional blocs, and some worried that political motivations could be factoring into decisions.

4. Should we accept a mayor or not?

Judging by the current state of talks, having a mayor has become a priority for the government in the devolution deal, and opting to go ahead without a mayor will seriously limit what’s on offer. Some Policy Network members weren’t sure whether a mayor would be the best option for their area, especially in non-city regions, but they feel they didn’t really have an alternative if they wanted to go ahead with a workable deal.

5. What does Devolution look like for London?

In London, people are generally unsure how devolution might look, given that the Greater London Authority already acts, in some ways, in the capacity of a Combined Authority. However, London representatives emphasised that the conversations shouldn’t just be about decentralising power to the regions, but about a new model of public service delivery. Some boroughs are trying to work out what, if any, alliances could be formed between some of its neighbours.

6. How can we better engage the public in the process, if at all?

Councils are finding it hard to know how to sell the idea of a devolution deal to their electorate – partly because it’s all behind closed doors, partly because its a messy process that’s changing all the time.

Despite the challenges, there was a general sense that devolution, in principle, has the potential to bring opportunities to their local areas. But of course, it will be completely dependent on the deals struck, so we’ll be keeping a close eye on the news as it emerges. Stay up-to-date with our Devolution policy theme here.