Picking up the pace of devolution

21 Apr 16

Concerns about the speed of the government's devolution agenda are understandable, but misplaced. It has been the speed and clear requirement for mayoral combined authorities that has helped deliver progress

The National Audit Office has published a new report calling for greater clarity and accountability in the government’s devolution agenda in order to, in its own words, ensure that devolution deals “stimulate and rebalance economic growth more effectively, and reform public services so that they are better designed for local users”. In particular, the report highlights concerns that while the “scale and scope of English devolution deals have increased substantially in the last 18 months”, the government lacks a “clear view of the landscape or, crucially, an idea of the destination”.

This will be grist to the mill for critics of the devolution process, who have long argued that the government has rushed ahead with their agenda, without properly thinking through the consequences for places or national governance. But are these criticisms credible when one takes a closer look at the nature of devolution we are seeing?

There is no doubt that the speed of progress on devolution over the last eighteen months has felt rapid to those within the sector, and it’s easy to empathise with those local and national politicians who have had to directly respond to the government’s determination to deliver on this agenda early in the Parliament. But in large part, the scale of progress made recently feels so significant because for the last fifteen years – essentially since the establishment of the Greater London Authority – the pace of change has been glacial at best. This has had serious consequences for the leadership of London, which still boasts far fewer devolved powers than other global capitals, as well as those of major regional cities like Manchester, Birmingham and others.

Likewise, far from displaying a lack of clarity on devolution deals as the NAO report asserts, the government has in fact been very clear from the outset that these are demand-led deals focused primarily on boosting economic growth across the country, as well as what was required of city-regions in order to gain the new powers on offer – the adoption of a mayoral combined authority. And when one looks at the actual content of the deals agreed to date, even though it may not have been present at the very outset, a framework has emerged (based on Greater Manchester) of the powers Government is prepared to devolve. You can debate (and we at Centre for Cities have) about whether this is a good thing or not, but the framework is there.

In practice, it has been the speed and clear requirement for mayoral combined authorities that has allowed the government to deliver the progress we have seen. This has provided places with the necessary sharp incentives to take often very difficult local political decisions to work together and agree new forms of strategic leadership more effectively than any other approach adopted previously.

At the same time, the government has resisted being prescriptive about exactly where and when devolution happens. Instead, as the authors of the report acknowledge, the government has been “in explorer mode, drawing the map as it goes along” – as you might expect when pursuing a new and unprecedented policy agenda.

If anything, the real problem is that very little has changed on the ground since initial devolution deals were signed, as in many areas the formal council ratification processes are only now taking place. This has allowed momentum in areas like the North East to wane, and provided ample time for those sceptical of the government’s devolution agenda to campaign against the changes.

The exception here has been Greater Manchester, which was the only combined authority to quickly appoint an interim metro mayor in mid-2015, with a brief to move the devolution programme forward, and raise the profile of the new arrangements with the public. In hindsight, this step should have been a precondition of publicly announcing devolution agreements for all city-regions. This would have allowed the government to front-load some of the benefits of the devolution deals in 2016 in order to demonstrate its willingness to uphold its end of the bargain. It also would have further helped maintain the pace of change at the local level, helping to discourage the sense of confusion encapsulated within the NAO report and in the recriminations in places like the North East.

In the months ahead, it is vital that national and local decision-makers do all they can to recapture the momentum behind the devolution agenda, and guard against the kind of inertia that could mean their place fails to take advantage of the opportunities devolution has to offer.

This blog first appeared on the Centre for Cities website

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