If we are to see greater devolution from Whitehall to cities in the years ahead, quality will be more important than quantity.
The Government has today announced that it has received 38 proposals to devolve power down from Whitehall to town halls all across the country. The list of places stretches right across England, Scotland and Wales, and although there is some overlap (particularly in Yorkshire), the number does reflect the strong levels of appetite that now exist in towns and cities across the country to take on more power and responsibility, to grow their economies and deliver public services in the future.
Full list of devolution proposals received on 4 September
3 Cheshire and Warrington
7 ‘D2N2’ – Derbyshire, Derby, Nottinghamshire and Nottingham
10 Greater Brighton
11 Greater Essex
12 Greater Lincolnshire
13 Greater Manchester
14 Greater Yorkshire
15 Hampshire & Isle of Wight
16 Heart of the South West
18 Hull, Yorkshire, Leeds City Region and the Northern Powerhouse
19 Inverness & Highland City
20 Leeds City Region
21 Leicester and Leicestershire
22 Liverpool City Region
26 North East
28 Sheffield City Region
29 Surrey, West Sussex & East Sussex
32 Tees Valley
33 Telford & Wrekin
34 West Midlands
35 West of England
38 York, North Yorkshire and East Riding
The large number of proposals submitted also reflects the progress that has been made in many areas to forge closer working relationships to deliver services at the city-region level, and both this, and the continued enthusiasm for greater levels of devolution is to be welcomed and not taken for granted.
Equally however, it would be wrong to allow ourselves to get carried away – this is, after all, just the latest in a succession of initiatives over the last five years designed to attract proposals from local government for greater autonomy, and yet the UK remains the most centralised country in the western world.
Indeed, the evolution of the city deals process through the last Parliament reminds us that lots of devolution deals does not necessarily mean lots of devolution – even when the Government and cities are determined to deliver it. Beginning with just eight ambitious deals with the members of the Core Cities group at that time, the City Deals process promised to transform the relationship between local government and the centre by introducing new and innovative financing mechanisms, and giving cities far more control over important policy areas like housing and skills.
However, in the face of increasing political pressure to extend this approach to other, smaller towns and cities across the country, the Government opened up the process to a further 20 places. The result was a second set of deals that were far more generic and small in scale – often more closely resembling a traditional allocation of funding, rather than the devolution of any strategic or fiscal power.
This dilution of scale and ambition in the second round of City Deals points to capacity and resource limits at both the local and national levels to deliver substantial devolution. Negotiating and securing nearly 30 separate deals, each bespoke and each against varying local political backdrops, proved to be an almost impossible task for officials at all levels. Indeed, the extent of political power and technical capacity required to first agree, and then implement, devolution of the kind now proposed for Greater Manchester – just one city region – should not be underestimated.
This suggests that there is likely to be a limit on the number of ambitious deals secured come the Comprehensive Spending Review, but it also tells us something about what success would look like for this stage of the city devolution process. Of course the Government should try and secure as many deals as possible that improve the ability of places to unlock economic growth in their area, and they are right to be pleased that so many places have come forward keen to take on more power and responsibility. But quality is more important than quantity. The real test for whether we are likely to see substantial devolution from Whitehall in the years ahead will be whether we see two or three more major deals announced that include the kind of strategic housing, transport and planning powers currently contained within the Greater Manchester Deal.
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A succinct and well argued piece based upon the basic understanding of change, and the inertia which has inevitably been built up in what should be a dynamic system of governance. The process of change, and the system’s capacity to deliver it is where the real, effort must lie as the more exciting and demanding these deals become the more talent and advice they will attract. Let’s all do what we can to support those empowered to design and deliver the kind of change upon which we all agree.
I have to admit that at officer level in local authorities in London there is concern about the whole devolution equally cuts and risk transfer issue. Getting involved in the tail-end of the Work Program is a good example.