The devolution agenda: what next for councils?
Luke Bevir argues that further expansion of devolution in England can deliver benefits for local communities but first requires councils to build a strong foundation for their deal.
Devolution is well and truly on the agenda with both the Conservative government and Labour Opposition supportive of more devolution deals across England.
In the 2022 Levelling Up White Paper the government promised that “every part of England that wants one” will have an expansive devolution deal backed by a funding settlement by 2030. According to analysis from the Institute for Government, it is estimated that by the end of 2024, over half of England’s population will be covered by mayoral devolution deals. Sir Keir Starmer has also said that a future Labour administration would devolve power within England as part of “a huge power shift out of Westminster”. Potential benefits of devolution for local communities
At the heart of this cross-party commitment to devolution is the idea that we need to reframe how decisions are made and give people more power and control over the things that matter to them.
In her recent book ‘All In’, Lisa Nandy puts it like this: “we all need, want and increasingly demand the right to be included in the decisions enacted on our behalf and I passionately believe that, if we are, those decisions are always better for it.”
Supporters of devolution on all sides points to more freedom and flexibility for local leaders, greater accountability to citizens and communities, an ability to focus on local drivers of growth, and locally-driven public service transformation.
Devolution isn’t a silver bullet
Since the Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition government started the current process of English devolution in 2014, most of the mayoral combined authorities have emerged through negotiated bespoke deals between Whitehall and local government. This has resulted in differences in structure, powers, and function.
It has also resulted in a mixed bag in terms of success.
Notable successes include local leaders in Greater Manchester addressing health inequalities or the creation of a more integrated and sustainable transport system in the Liverpool City Region. But this is not the case everywhere. In the West of England, governance structures requiring agreement from every council leader has meant that vital Levelling Up projects, including the region’s strategy to build thousands of new homes, have yet to get up and running.
According to a report by the Institute for Government, “the effectiveness of devolved institutions suffers if a devolution deal is based on incoherent geography, lacks sufficient local support or is poorly implemented.” In other words, devolution is no silver bullet - England’s asymmetric approach to devolution means that the initial foundation for any devolution deal matters just as much as how it is implemented.
What this means for councils in England
There are currently eleven areas in England at the initial conception phase of developing a devolution plan – and more thinking about it.
Developing a devolution deal is complex but we know that it must start from a strong foundation. Areas in the early throes of considering or planning for devolution should give attention to the following:
Building a strong coalition of support: Devolution succeeds when it has a starting point of strong local political and stakeholder support. This includes engaging with citizens on their hopes and wishes for the future of their area. Future success will depend on the ability of places to reach agreement on investment priorities, transport plans, and skills strategies.
Build trusting relationships: It is vital to create a culture of working across local boundaries that transcends narrow interests. This may require substantial effort to build trust and relationships between different organisations, leaders, and parties, especially in places without much history of this.
Develop a compelling vision: Before negotiations with Whitehall can begin, local leaders need to develop and articulate a clear vision, including: why they want a devolution deal, what benefits it will deliver, which powers they want to see devolved, where the geographical boundaries will be, and how the leaders will work together to make it a success.
Deciding what ‘flavour’ of devolution: the Levelling Up White Paper set out a three-level ‘devolution framework’ – from a ‘Level 3’ directly-elected mayor overseeing a county area to a ‘Level 1’ joint committee of councils in an area. In particular, the role of a mayor can be a big sticking point, with both Cornwall Council and Norfolk recently saying they will not pursue a Level 3 deal.
Plan for the long-term benefit of the region: A devolution deal should not be treated as a shopping list of projects but a coordinated plan to bring added value to the entire region for the long-term.
Devolution is firmly on the agenda and represents a seismic shift in how public services are run across England. And with the option for all regions in England to have a deal by 2030 if they want it, the potential impact of this should not be understated.
Regions wanting to pursue this opportunity should prioritise building strong foundations based on a committed coalition of support, trusting relationships and clear vision before any devolution deal can proceed.