Mark Whitehead 17 January 2018

Devolution - have the wheels fallen off the wagon?

For a time devolution was all the rage in local government circles. Councils lined up to announce they were joining forces and taking advantage of new decentralised powers handed down by Whitehall, extra funding and the right to elect their own mayors.

But all that seems to have come to a grinding halt. Last week a government report - snuck out 10 months after it was written - revealed there had been no new devolution plans agreed last year. Suddenly the wheels seem to have fallen off the devolution wagon.

The inspiration behind the great devolution reform was bold. Announcing his plans in October 2015, then chancellor George Osborne said devolving powers to local areas would promote growth and prosperity. Local government would be able to retain 100% of local taxes, including business rates, to spend on services.

It was the dawn of a new era, but it followed the failure of more ambitious plans for regional government when people in the North East of England firmly rejected the opportunity to create their own assembly in a poll in 2004.

Instead, reflecting the trend for decentralising which had seen power devolved to new governments in Scotland and Wales, the idea of localities based on city regions gained currency.

The Government saw the advantages of councils joining forces and the idea of the combined authority with their own mayors emerged - seized first by Greater Manchester.

Local government leaders have strongly supported the trend. Devolution, according to the Local Government Association, is 'one of the most fundamental changes to the way decisions are made for local areas and how public services are funded,' providing 'greater freedoms and flexibilities at a local level, meaning councils can work more effectively to improve public services for their area,' and providing 'more effective, better targeted public services, greater growth and stronger partnerships between public, private and community leaders in local areas.'

So far, in the areas which have taken advantage of it, devolution appears to be successful and few would argue with the principle of people having more say over what happens in the localities where they live and work.

But local decision-making means greater responsibility and the biggest councils are clearly best placed to take it on - hence it is the big cities, in the main, which have been first to take advantage of the new freedoms.

Smaller councils, though, may not have the resources - or the inclination - to take on the extra responsibility.

There is also a paradox at the heart of the devolution agenda: when several councils combine forces they gain powers from central government, but by combining, each inevitably loses some of its independence, historically a treasured principle of local government. And adding a mayor to the formula creates a separate seat of power, meaning traditional councils, again, lose a little piece of their prized sovereignty.

The government's favoured method of promoting change, by asking for proposals to be submitted, inevitably leads to big differences in what devolution actually means in practice. The idea of councils offering similar services to residents and businesses throughout the country is being replaced by a patchwork of different settlements from one place to another. There has always been inconsistency between councils, but giving them more freedom, it can be argued, is likely to increase it.

There are more prosaic reasons for the current pause. The government has had its hands full with major events including the EU referendum, the Grenfell disaster and the general election, and seems to have been less concerned with local government reform.

The LGA's response to the current 'deadlock' is to call for more government encouragement to councils which have so far failed to grasp the devolution option.

Cllr Mark Hawthorne, chairman of the LGA’s people and places board, said more deals were needed to allow communities across the country to benefit, calling on the government to 'jump-start the devolution debate'.

'There is now a real risk that areas without devolution deals will be left behind,' he warned. 'This risks undermining the government’s ambition to bring prosperity and productivity to all parts of the country.'

Whether more councils will respond to such calls remains to be seen. Perhaps the future local government landscape will include big, successful combined authorities with high-profile mayors alongside traditional councils continuing as before.

There may be more deals in the year ahead, and it remains to be seen whether the wheels have actually fallen off the devolution wagon and the new era ushered in by George Osborne has come to an end - or just put on pause for the moment.

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