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Devolution needs outward not inward looking city halls

Phil Swann, Si Managing Director writes

I think the comments last week by John Cridland CBI Director General and from the Institute of Directors expressing concern about the pace of devolution to combined authorities and “rushed backroom deals”, are significant. (They were reported in both the Financial Times(£) and the Local Government Chronicle). Here’s four reasons why.

  1. The fact leading business figures decided to comment shows they think that there is a real chance the government and major political parties are serious about devolution. This is another sign that devolution is for real this time.
  2. Their comments suggest that there is still a gulf between business leaders and political leaders at a local level. There is evidence that the best Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs) have built a new powerful alliance between the two but last week’s comments suggest this is not happening everywhere. And it is true that some people in some places see combined authorities as a way of “putting LEPs in their place”. It would be interesting to know what the collective view of the LEP chairs is on all this.
  3. John Cridland’s references back to the days of massive business rate hikes in the 1970s shows how powerful the shadow of history is and that local government still has a way to go in demonstrating its competence to its business partners.
  4. This articulation of business scepticism about combined authorities mirrors concerns within clinical commissioning groups about whether it is appropriate to give health and wellbeing boards additional responsibilities. At the heart of both issues is a concern about old fashioned municipalism. This is also a theme that runs through Sir Bob Kerslake’s recent report on Birmingham and has echoes in the Jay and Casey reports on Rotherham.

There is clearly something important for local government to think about in this renewed interest and in the warning shots, if it is to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the current devolution offer.

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