On 17th February 16, the County Councils Network and the District Council Networks, in partnership with PA Consulting and Shared Intelligence, hosted a second summit on Devolution.
The first took place on 8th October 2015, and explored initial questions around leadership, capacity, governance, trust and desired levels of freedom.
Following the signing of several devolution deals, the Spending Review in November 2015 and the amendments agreed to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill (now an Act), the group reconvened to explore devolution further in light of the new and emerging realities.
Following the initial welcomes, we invited a few speakers to open the debate with some provocations on latest trends or issues in devolution.
Kevin noted that though the education sector has not suffered budgets cuts akin to those seen by Local Authorities, nonetheless the investment in R&D in the UK is low compared to global competitors. On devolution, he felt the current devolution deals and conversations were lacking in ambition – yet noted that this was on purpose, due to a lack of capacity to do anymore. What role could universities play, as local payers of Business Rates? Universities play a key role in the economy as both local multipliers and exporters, and are growing as a sector.
Kevin further offered that the view of skills under devolution is too narrow. Skills and capacity are a national issue, and a combined view must be taken on further education, higher education, specialist skills, innovation and research if we are to really drive growth and development. We must have a real conversation about investment and future opportunities.
Discussing the changing landscape of Local Government, Ed suggested that Combined Authorities offer a real and present danger to County and District Councils. The rewriting of the Local Government will be drastic, with Mayors – for now a condition for devolution – being given the mandate to look at cross border service redesign.
Ed’s then spoke of financial powers, stating that devolution without control of local taxation becomes meaningless. Business Rates are antiquated, and do not reflect the real value or influence of modern businesses – and so offer limited influence on local growth. The Midlands Engine and the Northern Powerhouse have no real power over devolution, and will become meaningless unless thought is given to helping areas within them compete with London for business investment, talent and high net worth individuals. Business Rates are a start, but much more is needed.
If 2015 was the year of momentum, 2016 is the year of mayors, Andrew stated. He continued that where economic development was the drive behind devolution till now, public sector reform will emerge as a big feature as one of the legacy issues. Other agendas are still key, such as Troubled Families and health and social care integration.
In thinking of the next devolution deals, he emphasised those who are considering mayors will get fast-tracked – those who are not will fail for now, and might be revisited next year. Further, those with mayors will gain early access to influence on the Treasury – but little influence will be given without change in the local democratic landscape.
Phil asked to give some focus to four ‘boring’ questions: What are we trying to achieve? How can collaboration help? How does devolution fit? What governance is needed to make it happen?
Without this discipline and the logical sequence of addressing it areas risk confusion and focusing on the wrong thing too early. Devolution must be seen as a fundamental part of planning, not a luxury bolt on. It must be the solution to the strategic question rather than a separate add-on. Yet complex geographies make it difficult for many local areas to agree on plans.
The Rt Hon Hazel Blears added a few comments, emphasising that the urgent need to integrate in order to do more for less should focus the minds. Focus first on what to do with any power or money received rather than focusing on who sits on the platform and owns the control.
“The centre has never needed LG more than it needs it now – the opportunity has never been greater, because there is no money and yet we need to keep the system going for our people and our place”.
Following the provocations, delegates were asked to nominate key questions or topics they would like to discuss for the rest of the afternoon.
Find out more about PA's Devolution agenda.