William Eichler 19 December 2016

MPs call for clarity over ‘high-risk’ devolution strategy

The Government has failed to clearly define its objectives for devolution in England and must improve transparency about where taxpayers money is going, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says.

A new report from the PAC, Devolution in England: governance, financial accountability and following the taxpayer pound, has raised concerns about scrutiny, transparency and accountability in the devolution process.

It warned: ‘Taxpayers must be able to understand who is spending their money, how that money is allocated and where responsibility lies if the system fails to deliver good value or things go wrong.’

In particular it criticised the ‘opaque’ nature of accountability for the activities of Local Enterprise Partnerships, which are now negotiating local growth deals funded by a £12bn fund over a five-year period.

The committee also said the department of communities and local government (DCLG) must do more to demonstrate the link between devolution and economic growth, and should ensure devolution benefits all local areas.

The PAC report highlighted the potential impact on taxpayers inherent in the ‘considerable scope for tension’ between local government, which is required to deliver and maintain services within a devolved budget, and central government which provides funding.

Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said: ‘Devolution in England has significant implications for the lives of millions of people.

‘Yet even at this late stage, and despite concerns raised by us and others in Parliament, the Government still has serious questions to answer.

‘Generalisations about the potential benefits of devolution just don’t cut it with taxpayers worried about real-world issues.

‘The public care about the future of vital local services; about jobs, housing, education. They want to know not just who is spending their money and to what end, but also how well it is being spent.’

‘The Government’s annual report on devolution, published this month, does nothing to address these concerns nor to set out a detailed strategic vision for the programme,’ Ms Hillier continued.

‘Instead, as laws move forward to enable mayoral elections to be held, it appears content simply to document processes.

‘The message is clear and the implications dangerous: combined authorities have signed up for devolution; now it’s over to them – full stop.’

‘This high-risk strategy is squarely in the sights of our committee, which exists to scrutinise the value for money of public spending,’ she added.

A DCLG spokesman said: 'We have been clear that devolution is about putting power back in the hands of local people and helping them drive local economic growth and productivity.

'Our landmark devolution deals across the country will see strong, accountable local leaders take control of major economic priorities including transport, infrastructure investment, planning, skills and more.

'These deals, which include £5bn in new funding, will help communities take control of decisions that matter to them and build an economy that works for everyone.'

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