The submission of a proposal for a combined authority for Nottingham and Nottinghamshire is an important landmark in the push for devolution from central government.
Devolution deals may have been primarily metropolitan phenomena up to now, but progress on this front means that we must find a way to develop strong governance vehicles that can operate across a more varied geography.
Our journey began well over a year ago when Nottingham City Council, Nottinghamshire CC and the seven district councils formed a joint economic prosperity committee. This move brought a more formal arrangement to the shared dialogue over issues such as shared services, transport and economic development, which Nottinghamshire councils have held for over three decades. This shared history is an important building block for the future. Of course, developing strong relationships is rarely a linear process and we have had our setbacks over the years.
After forming the committee, we recognised that we needed to explore the potential for a stronger governance model which would lend a degree of permanence, legal authority and confidence to our aspirations for greater devolved powers. The governance review that followed raised many sensitive issues that had to be considered.
Not least is the issue of boundaries and overlaps with neighbouring areas. And this is where any governance review will pose a dilemma. The search is on for the things that make an area coherent.
But we soon found that this is inevitably a compromise and there will always be imperfections in the way that boundaries fit with patterns of work, commerce and lifestyle. The solution is to recognise and work with those realities in the way governance arrangements are designed.
In an area with a unitary core city and a two-tier county around it, it’s unlikely that any governance review can be carried out without the spectre of reorganisation being raised. This is a test for political and organisational leaders and a strong sense of trust is needed to ensure that the focus is on what matters. For us this focus was very clearly on our potential to add value through devolved power and resources.
The danger which can quickly arise in discussions about governance and structure is that purpose is subsumed. A critical turning point for us was the moment we re-focused on our strategic ambitions for Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. It is the conversation about destination, purpose and objectives which can get you over the obstacles.
A successful combined authority proposal will need to work in parallel with a similar arrangement in Derbyshire, given that we share a local enterprise partnership with our neighbours. Our proposals are pragmatic in the way that they enable Nottinghamshire partners to work with pace and focus whilst collaborating with Derbyshire partners over areas of mutual interest.
This has already enabled the two combined authorities to hit the ground running with an early conversation about a devolution deal with the government and the opposition. Nottingham’s core city status together with progress on combined authority proposals has levered open the right doors in Westminster.
A devolution prospectus sets out aspirations around a free trade zone, an investment fund and London-style transport powers for the two combined authorities. And detailed plans for the area include some bold aspirations such as 100% digital connectivity.
As the post-election dust settles, the practical implications of devolution will come more clearly into focus. The Local Government Association is preparing the case for greater devolution to local government and you can expect Nottingham and Nottinghamshire to be in the front row.
Andrew Muter, chief executive, Newark & Sherwood DC
Andrew Muter: A strong sense of trust is speeding our devolution journey