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English devolution: this time it’s different

This time is different. At this stage in the life of a new government the biggest challenge facing local government has generally been to work out how to hold ministers to any commitments to devolution and decentralisation in their manifesto.

In the days since the Conservative Party election victory devolution has been high up the new government’s agenda. The Chancellor of the Exchequer made his first post-election speech in Manchester and devoted it to the “Northern Powerhouse” which he described as “a revolution in the way we govern England.”

Much of the reaction to his speech has focused on what all this means for places outside the major urban areas, a topic I have addressed in previous blogs.

In what I think is an important passage in his speech the Chancellor said: “We’ll empower the towns and great counties of the North too, by extending a form of the city deal programmes we ran in the last Parliament to cover counties and towns too….I want councils and local enterprise partnerships here to come forward with plans to build on their strengths.”

I am confident that the references in that quote to “the North” reflect Mr Osborne’s audience, and that we can take this as a general invitation to towns and counties to develop plans for a new wave of city deals.

This opportunity raises important questions for councils and their LEP partners.

First, they need to be clear what it is they are trying to achieve, what the barriers they face are, what more they can do with their partners to overcome those barriers and how a new relationship with government could help them go further, faster.

Second, they need to be clear what they need to do in order to give government the confidence to devolve to them. The gold standard is evidently a combined authority with a “metro mayor”. But, as I’ve argued previously, that model is simply not appropriate in many of the places I am working with. I think that the key ingredients must be:

  • A clear point of local accountability which makes sense to local people, local businesses and key local agencies;
  • A governance mechanism which can take binding collective decisions and ensure effective delivery.

Third, places must have a developed a proposed work programme and pipeline of projects which has the full support of all local partners and, in particular:

  • Is based on a deep understanding of what local business in growth sector say they need in order to realise their growth ambitions;
  • Is in effect a local version of the NHS five year forward view drafted in a way which will have real traction with the different elements of the local health and care system;
  • Can drive the next phase of public services reform.

It is different this time. There is an opportunity to be seized. It is up to local councils and their partners to prepare for serious negotiations with government.

Phil Swann is managing director of Shared Intelligence


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