In devolution we trust

2 Sep 15

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill is a potential game changer, but the lack of progress on fiscal devolution remains a real concern.

It’s a big week for those areas considering their devolution proposition to government, with many furiously agreeing and finalising Letters of Intent for the 4 September deadline. While Greater Manchester, their Core City Partners, and Cornwall are rightly in the limelight for showing leadership and ambition in developing the case for devolution, others have been left wondering what to do (if anything) and, critically, whether they have strong enough local partnerships to get a coherent ‘ask’ together in the timescale. And if they can’t, will they miss out on additional powers or resources?

Devolution is about ambition, passion, visionary leadership, controlling your own destiny, communication and, perhaps most importantly, trust. All these depend on the relationships and shared ambitions (political or otherwise) of those involved in making it happen. It is also about changing mindsets and cultures that have pervaded public sector services for generations.

For example, there has never been a greater need for true partnership working to break down silos and manage resources for the benefit of the client. This is a massive test, even in the strongest partnerships, especially against the continuing background of austerity. Crucially, devolution is about distributed leadership, which potentially involves ceding some power for the greater good. It should be easy then, but what is evident is that delivering devolution is fraught with complexity and uncertainty. So how do leaders manage their way through this environment? Firstly, there needs to be an unremitting focus on why and how partners can agree and achieve their shared ambitions. If devolution becomes focused on governance structures it will quickly lose trust – and its way.

Consultation is key, but so is firm and decisive leadership, and decision-making that may need to by-pass traditional methods to get things done. We don’t know how local residents and business communities will respond, but they should have a voice in the debate. The involvement of Local Enterprise Partnerships and other key business organisations must have an equal say developing and delivering plans.

Evidence to date suggests that things have moved at such a pace that involvement has been patchy. There is a need to catch up, and quickly. Equally, introducing elected mayors without a vote involving local people could cause another possible diversion from achieving the overriding ambitions and meeting the financial deficit that remains.

For me, one of the biggest questions is whether Whitehall can respond in a co-ordinated way to encourage the transfer of functions and powers to localities. The signs are good. Most would not have anticipated the pace of change since the election – unprecedented in my 25 years in the public sector. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill definitely has the potential to be a game-changer and if what is happening in GMCA is anything to go by then realising ambition will only be a matter of ensuring there is the capacity and will to deliver. The passion and commitment in the North is certainly focused on making the Northern Powerhouse a reality.

However, the lack of progress on fiscal devolution remains a real concern. This is the real prize and without it it’s difficult to see how the game will really change. In terms of the amount of tax gathered locally and subject to local determination we remain one of the most centralised countries in the world. Research shows that this is restricting economic growth and, in particular, the ability of our second-tier cities to compete more effectively in the global marketplace. It even impacts on our greatest economic asset, London.

There are so many vested interests and challenges in making this work that you may ask why do it? The answer for me lies in changing lives in the North and other regions, and giving those closest to the issues greater control over the resources and powers required to make things happen quickly and more effectively.

Much has been achieved so far and with the continued support of Whitehall, the business community and the public, and the continued passion and leadership of those leading the change, I remain confident that devolution will be a success, and will continue to change the shape of our public services and communities long into the future.


This blog is part of the CIPFA Thinks series

  • Mike Thomas CPFA

    Local government strategy lead for Grant Thornton in the North. Mike has significant experience in the external audit of local government, health – trusts, mental health trusts, clinical commissioning groups; police; fire; waste; pension funds and parish councils.

    Before joining Grant Thornton, Mike worked for the Audit Commission for 12 years as a district auditor and was a lead Inspector carrying out Comprehensive Performance Assessments and a member of the Improvement Boards overseeing change at Wirral Borough Council, Liverpool City Council and Rossendale DC.

    He is currently the Vice-President and secretary to CIPFA's North-West Council and has recently joined the Tackling Poverty and Fairness working group across the Liverpool City Region.

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