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Devolution timetable too rapid, say chiefs

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An overwhelming majority of local government’s most senior officers regard ministers’ timetable for devolution as unreasonable, according to a survey conducted by LGC in association with UK legal business DWF.

Sixty-nine per cent of the 45 chief executives and deputies who responded to our survey indicated the timeframe to for bids had been too tight. Councils were given just seven weeks to put the requests for extra powers together, after the deadline was announced in the July Budget.

We received responses from 45 top officers, including 31 at councils who submitted bids and 14 who did not. Just over half of officers at authorities that hit the deadline said the timescales were unreasonable but were confident they had submitted a good bid regardless.

One in five said with more time they could have put in a better bid. The remaining third said the tight schedule was reasonable as it forced councils to move

Within councils that did not submit a bid, just 8% blamed the timescale. Another 8% said they could not convince politicians to agree, indicating that the two-month timetable did not leave enough time to iron out differences. Thirty-eight per cent said they could not arrange a necessary partnership with another

Neil McInroy

Neil McInroy

Neil McInroy, chief executive at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), said it was unfair for the government to expect groups of authorities to compress into a few months a process that took Greater Manchester authorities several years.

“The devolution agenda is weird and ill-thought through,” he said. “The government seems to have adopted an approach informed by what’s happened in Greater Manchester, but Greater Manchester has had 20 years of working together. It’s bizarre.”

However, Phillip Blond, director of thinktank ResPublica, said even councils that failed to hit the deadline could have benefited from the process.

“A lot of authorities didn’t submit because it was too fast for them but it was [still] a useful exercise because the agreements are only on broad heads of terms.

“They are strategic and you can do strategy quickly. You can change an organisation in terms of its goals in a couple of days.”

He said some authorities would have made a purposeful decision not to submit a bid yet.

“Other authorities are in a good position because they can become second or third adopters. They will not make the mistakes that others will make, but also learn from the successes [of others].”

Phillip Blond

Phillip Blond

Such a sentiment was echoed in our survey findings. Of officers whose councils did not submit a bid, 15% said they did not want to but a further 15% said they were waiting to see how other authorities fared with their bids first. One respondent took this further: “We are not convinced the frenzy around [devolution] is merited and a limited number of deals will be around given Whitehall’s capacity to process.”

Responding to the survey results, a Department for Communities & Local Government spokesman said: “This government is committed to devolving arreaching powers within England to cities, counties and towns.

“The sheer volume of bids demonstrates how local leaders are embracing this opportunity, to have a direct hand in shaping the future of their area.

“Ministers have been clear their doors will remain open to those areas seeking to discuss devolution deals with government.”

45 chief executives and deputy or assistant chief executives responded to our survey during September 2015

The devolution deal

Michael Mousdale, head of local government, DWF

Tony Wilson, the Mancunian pop Svengali, was once asked which was England’s “second city”. He said London and Birmingham could fight it out between themselves.

Michael Mousdale DWF

Michael Mousdale, DWF

In the devolution debate, Manchester undoubtedly is England’s top dog. Long after Manchester created a combined authority, negotiated Devo Manc and did a deal on health devolution, Birmingham and the West Midlands were still searching for common ground between the councils and a way to bring it all together.

While London has the greatest degree of devolved government in England under the Greater London Authority Acts (with far greater powers given to the London mayor than any regional mayor will receive), it struggles with the concept of coherent devolution within London to give more power at a truly local level.

So when the government invited English local authorities to submit proposals for devolution, it was no surprise that Manchester, rather than resting on its laurels (after all, it already had devolution), submitted the most ambitious set of proposal of any of the 38 bids received. Its wishlist has a value of £7bn, including more money for health and transport and a range of tax powers. Furthermore, with Manchester devolution proceeding at a pace, it looks further ahead and leads the way in driving forward the Northern Powerhouse to bring greater connectivity across the whole of the north.

The sheer audacity and scale of this proposal illustrates that when it comes to devolution, it is every man for himself. Manchester cannot be blamed for that. Indeed, it is Greater Manchester authorities’ relentless crusade to promote their economy, to provide the necessary infrastructure for growth and to work together that made George Osborne reach out to them in the first place.

Whenever the government asks local authorities to bid for something (eg local government reorganisation, private finance initiative support, any number
of challenge funds) there are winners and losers. Devolution, it seems, is not going to be any different. The clear message is that if you want something, ask
for it. Devolution is about doing deals with the government, not a universal release of powers from Whitehall to the town hall. There is no redrawing of the
boundaries of statutory functions, nor of the tax system.

The Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill is only a permissive framework to allow the deals to be done. The LGC and DWF survey shows that many regret the lack of a common prescription for the transformation of English local government.

In the meantime, Manchester will just get on with it.

Column sponsored and supplied by DWF

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