Open up devolution process to public scrutiny, say MPs

3 Feb 16

MPs have called on the government to open its devolution process to greater public scrutiny so local communities can be part of decisions to localise control over services.

Devolution agreements, which have been reached with areas including Greater Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham and Liverpool, and the North East and Tees Valley and the communities and local government select committee said the commitment was welcome.

However, in a report examining the government’s Cities and Local Government Devolution Act, which passed into law last week, the MPs called on both Whitehall and local areas to go further.

In particular, both government ministers and local leaders should do more to engage the public in devolution proposals, negotiations, and outcomes, committee chair Clive Betts said.

People “rightly” want to be involved in discussions and negotiations affecting their communities, he stated, but those involved need to “up their game” to make the devolution process as transparent as possible.

This should include publication of all information on devolution deals online so the public can access a range of details on the proposals, deals, and negotiations. Government should also make “a clear statement” that devolution will take place at different speeds in different areas, while also agreeing timetables for negotiations and agreements.

“As a committee, we strongly support the principle of devolution and welcome its prominent place on the government’s agenda,” Betts added.

“We believe that the current arrangements should only be a first step towards a much bigger devolution settlement and that devolution should be the default across all government departments. If we are to achieve this local leaders and the government must make far greater efforts to communicate with and engage the public so they embrace devolution as a positive development too.”

The MPs said the lack of public consultation and engagement at all stages of the devolution process was a “very significant” problem as people needed to understand who is responsible and accountable for public services. Areas of devolved powers have included transport, planning and skills, while some places, including Cornwall, will also take on additional powers to integrate health and social care.

Elected mayor posts being created as part of the devolution deals in city regions would act as a figurehead for local services, but responsibility must be make sense to the public.

Responding to the report, a Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said it shared the committee’s ambitions for greater transfer of powers from Westminster to local areas and local people.

“Ministers have been repeatedly clear: this is a bottom-up process and there is no one-size fits all approach. Every deal is bespoke and provides arrangements that are relevant to each local area,” he added.

“Going further than the deals already made in places like Manchester, Cornwall and the Tees Valley, we’ve listened to local leaders and announced in the Autumn Statement that local government will retain 100% of business rates revenue by 2020 – giving them the means to become self-sufficient.”

Local Government Association chair Lord Porter added devolution opportunities needed to be extended to all areas of the country.

“Like the committee, we urge government to keep up the momentum in their discussions with non-metropolitan areas to ensure that all areas of England can benefit.

Devolution was one of the tools that could help local areas deal with funding pressures, he added.

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