The District Councils Network found in a member survey that two thirds of districts were engaged in devolution negotiations.
The diversity and closeness of districts to their communities provided those negotiations with much-needed local knowledge, expertise and detailed understanding of the needs of communities to ensure the full economic growth potential of deals is met.
Although devolution is often seen as a metropolitan policy, districts have strengthened devolution by providing the groundwork for strong collaborative partnerships to ensure economic benefits flow across the country. Indeed, business secretary Greg Clark told the DCN conference in February district councils have a central role to play in delivering economic growth and the industrial strategy.
A recent inquiry by the district council All Party Parliamentary Group showed districts have developed strong collaborative relationships not only with other districts but with counties, local enterprise partnerships and a wide range of other organisations working across functional economic areas. That experience has made districts vital in ensuring devolution arrangements are shaped with sufficient flexibility to be relevant to local patterns of economic growth and activity. By building on the good practice developed by districts in forming collaborations to stimulate economic growth and service transformation, devolution deals can meet subregional as well as local economic, social and community needs. Indeed, districts are making a vital contribution to ensuing devolution deals can take into account the diversity of needs of all communities covered by a deal.
District enthusiasm for engagement with devolution means that senior councillors and officers are more than willing and able to invest the time, energy and resources needed to make the process a success. A vital part of local leadership is now demonstrated in the contribution districts are making to forging devolution agreements. Managing the complex political, organisational and behavioural change required for the success of devolution deals requires collective effort among all types of councils. Indeed, existing good practice of districts and county councils developing a combined strategic role in developing collaborative relationships provide valuable lessons for brokering devolution deals. Moreover, it is often districts at the forefront of double devolution, ensuring devolution doesn’t stop at county or town halls but also flows to parish halls.
As England already has the largest units of local government across Europe and devolution ushers in large and potentially anonymous subregional combined authorities, the role districts have in keeping that new entity rooted in real localities with which communities identify will be vital to the success of any devolution initiative.
Colin Copus, professor of local politics, director, Local Governance Research Unit, Department of Politics and Public Policy, De Montfort University