Clark promises “continuous devolution” to cement central-local partnership

11 Jul 16

Greg Clark has set out a “continuous devolution” plan to boost the role of local councils so they become equal partners with Westminster in the governance of the country.

In a speech in Manchester on Friday, the local government secretary said government was moving towards a system where local areas were able to negotiate devolution with Whitehall on a “à la carte” basis and when communities identify new opportunities.

“If you lift the lid on Whitehall, what you see is an ongoing negotiation between different departments and ministers, an open process of give-and-take, proposal and counter-proposal,” he stated.

“This is how things work within central government, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be the same between central government and local government: each with its own role and mandate, but equal partners in the governance of the nation.”

Although the government was “not quite there yet”, the Cities and Devolution Act included three enabling mechanisms that would make this happen.

“Firstly, combined authorities [have been created] to provide the heft and coordination that communities need to deal directly with Whitehall and take control of major investment decisions.

“Secondly, elected mayors to provide combined authorities with democratic accountability and high-profile leadership. The third enabling mechanism is fiscal devolution – the financial independence, stability and incentives that communities need to push for local economic growth.”

In particular, Clark said that the shift to 100% local retention of business rates would be a key step.

“Every part of the country has the potential to benefit from the decentralisation of power, but for cities it is a no-brainer,” Clark told the ResPublica think-tank’s Finding the True North conference, in Salford.

However, he ruled out a more uniform process of devolution for other powers, saying the bespoke deals being reached across the country were acquiring their own momentum.

Agreements have been reached in 10 areas – Greater Manchester, Cornwall, Sheffield City Region, the North East, Tees Valley, Liverpool City Region, the West Midlands, East Anglia, Greater Lincolnshire, and the West of England.

Clark acknowledged that “to those of an excessively tidy frame of mind, this is quite unbearable”.

He added: “It’s not that they oppose devolution, it’s just that they want it implemented in a uniform, one-speed manner from the top-down. To me, that is to miss the point completely.

“Clearly, there are common principles that must be respected – such as democratic accountability and co-operation across local boundaries – but beyond that, I believe that the flexible approach to devolution has been vindicated.”

A uniform process of devolution would lead to reform at the pace of the slowest, which would have held back cities like Manchester and Liverpool, Clark added.

“I have always been clear that each deal and each piece of decentralising legislation represents a fresh point of departure not a final destination.” 

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