In our survey, supported by DWF, of chief executives’ attitudes to devolution, authorities saw devolution as significant.
More from: An uncertain revolution
Even including those that failed to bid by 4 September, 93% of respondents described devolution as important to meeting their objectives during this
Respondents named several benefits of devolution, including more rapid economic growth (71%); improved working across different authorities and local government tiers (67%); and greater health and social care integration (64%). Around half of respondents said devolution would save costs and improve services.
However, several said they feared a loss of sovereignty, and the removal of local expertise from decisionmaking processes. Some worried about increased bureaucracy and about “cost- and savings-shunting” from central government to combined authorities. Others were afraid the government would “hold on to too much” power or that power would be transferred from individual authorities to combined bodies with no impact on service delivery.
Seventy-three per cent of councils that did put in a bid - and all those that did not - said the government failed to properly consider governance models other
than elected mayoralties.
Clive Betts (Lab), Sheffield South East MP and chair of the commons communities and local government select committee, said of mayors: “Authorities aren’t sure whether they have to have one or what they have to give up if they don’t have one. Without that, [devolution] would be a much simpler and more democratic process.
“There will be a significant outpouring of discontent if some authorities get some devolution powers without an elected mayor.”
However, Phillip Blond, director of ResPublica, said: “For the major metropolitan regions there isn’t really any other offer [than elected mayors].”
He added that the government would be right to refuse to devolve to metropolitan combined authorities without an elected mayor. Any failure to include a mayor in these bids indicated “political disagreement” and granting these deals would “lock them into poor governance”, he added.
“It’s different for smaller cities and county areas, and the government is open to different structures that ensure leadership and transparency,” he said.
Responding to the survey, a Department for Communities & Local Government spokesman said: “The government is open to a range of proposals, but ministers are clear that where significant powers are transferred they must be accompanied by improved governance and clear accountability.
“Elected mayors offer direct accountably to residents for decisions taken locally and areas that adopt this model will benefit from significantly streamlined
According to our survey, the powers authorities put in their bid broadly corresponded to LGC’s analysis in September. This found that powers to shape economies were a top priority.
Data from the survey, however, has uncovered more detail on the specific powers authorities wanted within each area.
Mr Blond said the results displayed “a lack of innovation” from councils. “Everybody’s asking for a multi-year funding pot for infrastructure [79%, as part of
transport powers] but there’s a lack of innovation over the type of measures that could be adopted to help fund that, such as land value capture.
“Councils are right to ask for pooled health and social care budgets but the real benefits come from integrating that with early intervention, community care and chronic care.”
Mr Betts raised concerns about councils’ bids for greater control over support to local NHS providers with deficits (33%) and regulatory oversight in health and care (27%).
“If I lived in an area where the local authority was looking to take over NHS deficits, I’d have some concerns,” said Mr Betts.
“I’d like to see the detail, but the NHS is running up some serious deficits over the next few years and it would be a brave local authority to take it on.
“The ultimate accountable individual [for health] is the secretary of state, so how much real freedom will there be to operate?”
Mr Betts said that even if authorities were granted powers over income streams from various government departments, they may come with strings attached.
“What ability will local authorities have to switch money around between those income streams? The Treasury isn’t resistant to this, but the individual departments are violently opposed to it,” he said.
Neil McInroy, director of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, spoke of “an orthodoxy” to the powers authorities asked for. “We are talking here about the economic elements of devolution; there’s not much on education, welfare, health,” he said.
“All the social inputs to a successful economy don’t seem to be part of this, as this is Treasury-run and they have a very narrow idea of what economic success looks like.
“Councils are trying to beguile the government into giving the devolution deals by saying what [the government wants].”
Mr McInroy added that the current round of devolution “smacks of the multi-area agreement process” of 10 years ago rather than a “revolution”.
The survey was sponsored by DWF