Our Blog

What will the 20th devolution deal look like?

Cookie Cutters 2 by Chronologicalchapeau on Flickr

Phil Swann, Si Managing Director writes

It began as an invigorating conversation the other day with one of the bright sparks still in the Department for Communities and Local Government. She was talking about the discussions taking place in the department’s Marsham Street headquarters about how the devolution process might develop after the general election building on the momentum. Then she dropped into the conversation two words, “template” and “menu”.

This matters because even if the number of local enterprise partnerships is reduced and the move towards greater collaboration between councils continues, there will still be at least 20 groups of councils wanting detailed negotiations with Whitehall about city-regional devolution – far more than civil servants and Ministers have engaged with up to now.

The lessons from history about Whitehall’s ability to scale up devolutionary processes are not auspicious. Take Local Public Service Agreements, a product of joint working between the Local Government Association and the Blair government designed to negotiate lighter central controls over local services. The pilot areas, such as Kent and Suffolk, enjoyed incredibly constructive talks with civil servants and ministers. But the subsequent roll-out nationally turned into a bureaucratic nightmare, with all innovation squeezed out by process. The same is true of Local Area Agreements.

Or take the more recent example of City Deals. The story is the same. The front-runner deals, negotiated with the core cities, did break new ground and devolve real power. Subsequent deals did not and were frustrating for all concerned.

The fact is that, given its current mind set, the Whitehall machine is simply not capable of negotiating in a creative way with more than half a dozen places at any one time. It is also a fact that devices such as templates and menus stifle the local distinctiveness which is key to effective devolution.

Local government has a part to play in tackling this conundrum by not pretending that every deal is of equal importance or complexity, requiring the level of ministerial and civil servant engagement that the Greater Manchester deal has benefited from.

But the task for my friend and her colleagues at Marsham Street is not to design a better template or menu, but to imagine a way of working creatively with at least 20 areas which is genuinely bespoke and relies on discussion time and negotiation skills rather than paperwork and bureaucracy.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on Google+Email this to someone
Tags: , , , , , , ,

This is a unique website which will require a more modern browser to work! Please upgrade today!