Andrew Jepp 16 January 2017

Devolution: what’s in store for local authorities in 2017?

2016 was without doubt a year of significant political change for the UK. The uncertainty created by the UK’s historic vote to leave the European Union, not to mention the change in Government that followed, has left even the most informed observers wondering what 2017 might bring.

But with council chiefs now firmly back at their desks after the festive period, they will be bracing themselves for yet further powers being handed down to them from Whitehall over the course of this year.

Many council chiefs will be wondering whether 2017 will bring the kind of radical changes we saw last year, when the introduction of the four-year financial settlement for town halls brought with them gradual cuts in funding from Whitehall and a move towards the 100% retention of business rates and council tax by 2020.

While we are not likely to see changes as radical as this in 2017, the chancellor’s Autumn Statement in November was a clear indication that the Government’s devolution agenda is far from complete. Philip Hammond insisted that devolution remains ‘at the heart’ of the Government’s approach to supporting local growth, and set out a new package for local authorities. New mayoral combined authorities are set to be granted new borrowing powers ‘in order to reflect their new responsibilities’.

As well as this, the next round of the local growth fund will be redistributed regionally, and we can expect a strategy for the ‘Midlands Engine’ to be set out imminently.

Most council chiefs will welcome the new responsibilities and the extra control that devolution gives them over public service delivery. However, such responsibility does not come without risks attached, and local authorities will need to ensure that they are ready and able to manage these risks effectively so that essential services do not suffer.

One key aspect to consider in managing such new risks are financial skills. Councils will need to become far more commercially minded as new responsibilities, especially those around welfare and social care provision, are likely to require additional funding. Local authorities will need to assess whether they have the expertise to work in this way, and if not, bring it in as soon as possible.

Another key concern will be cyber risk. With councils responsible for significantly larger budgets than they have managed in the past, councils could become a more attractive target for fraud and the quickly maturing threat of cybercrime. Local authorities will have to ensure they are equipped to prevent and, should they occur, manage such incidents.

Perhaps most importantly, councils will have to manage the public’s expectations across more touch points. Greater responsibility over budgets and spending decisions will inevitably be reflected in the way local residents view their councils in terms of accountability for public service standards. This is especially important given that many councils will choose to outsource some of their new responsibilities to external providers.

Local authorities must make sure that they have robust processes in place to manage contracts effectively, ensure high quality even when services are provided by third parties and, in the event that something goes wrong, to resolve issues quickly.

Over the last few years, councils have proved highly resilient, demonstrating remarkable innovation and thriving in the face of significant challenges. The handing down of yet more powers from Whitehall will give local authorities unprecedented flexibility over public services, and present them with fantastic opportunities to make positive changes in their communities. But councils will also need to ensure that these extra powers are exercised responsibly.

There is no 'one size fits all' approach and chiefs should work with their partners to put together a robust risk management strategy reflecting their new, devolved operating environment.

Andrew Jepp is managing director of Zurich Municipal.

SIGN UP
For your free daily news bulletin
Highways jobs

Road Worker

City of Bradford MDC
Band 6 £20,043 - £22,129 pa
Bradford Metropolitan District Council is looking for two Road Workers to join the Highway Delivery Unit. Bradford, West Yorkshire
Recuriter: City of Bradford MDC

Senior Practitioner - Family Support and Protection

Essex County Council
£41552 - £50290 per annum + + Free Parking & Local Gov Package
Closing Date
Recuriter: Essex County Council

Senior Planning Enforcement Officer

Greater Cambridge Shared Planning
Grade 5, £30,737 - £35,747 per annum
An exciting opportunity has arisen within the Greater Cambridge Planning Enforcement Team Cambourne/Cambridge/Hybrid
Recuriter: Greater Cambridge Shared Planning

Assistant Engineer / Engineer

City of Bradford MDC
£24,920 - £34,373 pa
This is an opportunity to join the highway maintenance team Bradford, West Yorkshire
Recuriter: City of Bradford MDC

Technician - Maintenance Programmes (3 Posts)

Derbyshire County Council
£23,657 - £25,568 per annum - Plus market leading package (see below)
This is an exciting time to join our in-house Highways Service Hybrid
Recuriter: Derbyshire County Council

Partner Content

Circular highways is a necessity not an aspiration – and it’s within our grasp

Shell is helping power the journey towards a circular paving industry with Shell Bitumen LT R, a new product for roads that uses plastics destined for landfill as part of the additives to make the bitumen.

Support from Effective Energy Group for Local Authorities to Deliver £430m Sustainable Warmth Funded Energy Efficiency Projects

Effective Energy Group is now offering its support to the 40 Local Authorities who have received a share of the £430m to deliver their projects on the ground by surveying properties and installing measures.

Pay.UK – the next step in Bacs’ evolution

Dougie Belmore explains how one of the main interfaces between you and Bacs is about to change.