LGA chair warns government change could derail devolution

4 Oct 16

The chair of the Local Government Association has warned that a “pause” in devolution following Theresa May’s arrival in Downing Street could derail the process across the country.

Lord Porter, speaking at an LGA fringe meeting organised with the Centre for Cities, said the change of government had created a vacuum, into which doubt had crept regarding planned devolution schemes.

The deals are intended to provide powers to local authorities to boost economic growth. However, since May became prime minister, a proposed devolution deal for a combined authority in the north east of England collapsed after four of the seven councils involved rejected the terms.

Porter, who is also a Conservative peer, stressed he was speaking personally rather than for the LGA but insisted it was unfair to say that devolution schemes were going backwards.

“I think there has been enough space for a pause, and when you get a pause you get a vacuum, and when you get a vacuum people with different agendas start to fill the vacuum, that is what we have got.”

He said that if Whitehall “had carried on ramming home hard” existing devolution deals even after the change of government, “I think the momentum would have stayed with the deals that were there. I think the thing that has been able to give people breathing space is the change in administration – different people at the top and different priorities.”

Porter maintained that the vacuum could cause the devolution processes to become derailed. “I don’t think it’s going backwards, I think it has stalled and I think the stall is the bit that will undermine it. I think the stall will give all the doubters enough space to derail the deals”.

He also noted that the government had not changed its policy on the requirement for combined authority devolution deals to include directly elected majors. This is despite some in the sector hoping May and communities secretary Sajid Javid would be less insistent on the controversial stipulation than former chancellor George Osborne.

“She hasn’t changed her position but if enough people say she has then some people think so,” Porter said.

He added: “Sajid has made it quite clear, he has made public statements, he’s still driving [forward] the exiting deals and if you don’t have a mayor, no deal. People are still staying where the secretary of state is – well he’s made public pronouncements on it, you should know where he is.”

Porter also used the session to highlight the potential value of mayors to drive public sector reform. He said that although the devolution deals had been driven by economic development concerns, public sector reform was also vital.

Using the example of Birmingham, where the conference is being held, he said mayors could help drive reforms, which would go hand in hand with economic development.

“Is the state in Birmingham broken? Yes. Does it need reform? Yes. And if they say the price for that is a mayor, I would pay that price, where I live. If there are things that I know are wrong, if we can fix them but you have to have a mayor, then have a mayor to fix them.”

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