IPPR North sets out options to reboot devolution drive

2 Feb 17

Government should reboot the stalled devolution agenda by offering a ‘menu’ of options, each with a different balance between taking on power and agreeing to greater accountability, IPPR North has said.

In a report, the think-tank said that in order for deprived areas of the country to receive the benefits of devolution, a more “nuanced” approach was needed.

IPPR North identified what it called a government reluctance to cede power to local areas that have not signed off “robust accountability models.”

Under the government’s devolution drive, deals for extra powers have been reached with Greater Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham and Liverpool and the Tees Valley, with metro mayors set to be elected in May.

Others are also under discussion, while a proposal for the North East Combined Authority has been rejected by four of the seven councils.

In his Autumn Statement, chancellor Philip Hammond confirmed combined authorities led by new ‘metro’ mayors will to be given the power to borrow money, for their new functions, enabling them to invest in infrastructure.

While IPPR North applauded the government for avoiding a ‘one-size-fits-all’ template for devolution, it maintained a “lack of clarity and ambition” from national politicians had still undermined discussions with local councils.

A plan that would have seen powers devolved to the North East Combined Authority was rejected by local councillors, after concerns there was not enough money in the package.

Among the suggestions raised by the think-tank is for the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Treasury to offer councils a devolution framework based on a series of stages. This would allow for local areas to take on more power in return for measures to improve their governance.

The additional powers would range from additional freedom over public spending in an area to greater retention of tax revenues and the ability to introduce new levies. These would need to be matched to governance reforms, such as the introduction of a local public accounts committees to scrutinize devolved spending and increased public involvement in decision-making such as citizens’ panels or local referenda. Changes could even include to a proportional representation system for council elections or the introduction of a second chamber in local government to represent local business and community interests.

Jack Hunter, author of the report and IPPR North researcher, said that to restart the devolution process, central government should take the lead and set out its plans carefully. 

“To date, discussions around devolution have been conducted in secret and according to a set of unknown principals. By providing greater clarity about its underlying principles, government can reboot the devolution process and put the onus firmly on local leaders”.

This would encourage them, he said, to “work creatively to develop governance solutions that work for their area.”

Ed Cox, director of the IPPR North think-tank added a nuanced approach was required, that “takes seriously the economic strengths and weaknesses in ‘left behind’ areas beyond big city centres.”

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