PAC repeats warning on importance of devolution scrutiny

18 Dec 16

The Public Accounts Committee has issued a renewed warning over scrutiny in devolution deals, saying the government has still not set out how combined authority mayors will be held accountable for public money.

MPs called on the government to specify what it is trying to achieve through devolution and communicate this clearly to citizens and service users.

The Devolution in England report said that every pound spent by a combined authority mayor – which will be elected for the first time next May – must be traceable by parliament to maintain transparency and accountability.

For example, the review highlighted the ‘opaque’ nature of accountability for the activities of local enterprise partnerships – designed to bring together the public and private sector – which are currently negotiating a revised round of local growth deals funded to the tune of £12bn over five years.

The Department for Communities and Local Government must also do more to demonstrate the link between devolution and economic growth, according to the committee.

PAC chair Meg Hillier said the government’s devolution plans in England have significant implications for the lives of millions of people.

Currently devolution agreements that will create directly-elected mayors have been agreed in eight areas – Greater Manchester, Sheffield City Region, the Tees Valley, Liverpool City Region, the West Midlands, East Anglia, Greater Lincolnshire, and the West of England – although not all of these have confirmed elections for next May.

Hillier said the government still has serious questions to answer about the benefits of these proposals as “generalisations about the potential benefits” would not be enough.

“The public care about the future of vital local services; about jobs, housing, education,” she stated.

“They want to know not just who is spending their money and to what end, but also how well it is being spent.

“When things go wrong, they want to know who is responsible and how they will be held to account. And, when they elect their first mayors in May, they want to be confident the government has done all it can to protect their interests.”

According to the MPs, there is a “considerable scope for tension” between local government, which is required to deliver and maintain services within a devolved budget, and central government, which provides funding in areas such as skills and transport, and in Greater Manchester, health.

Central government must not “absolve itself of its responsibility to ensure that devolved areas receive adequate funding for sustainable services”, the report stated, and DCLG in particular must ensure devolution benefits work for all local areas and not just central zones or key cities covered by combined authorities, says the committee.

“The government’s annual report on devolution, published this month, does nothing to address these concerns nor to set out a detailed strategic vision for the programme,” Hillier added.

“Every pound of public money spent by an elected mayor, local enterprise partnership or other body must be a pound Parliament can trace. Spending must face robust scrutiny.”

Responding to the report, a DCLG spokesman said the government has been clear that devolution is about putting power back in the hands of local people.

“Our landmark devolution deals across the country will see strong, accountable local leaders take control of major economic priorities including transport, infrastructure investment, planning, skills and more.

“These deals, which include £5billion in new funding, will help communities take control of decisions that matter to them and build an economy that works for everyone.”

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