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Devo 'flashpoints' analysed: Not all devo partnerships are obvious or easy to agree

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LGC’s latest research into the development of devolution plans across England has found pretty much every council now wants in on the action.

Most will, however, need to join their neighbours to win the new freedoms on offer and these partnerships are not always obvious, or easy to agree.

This opens the prospect of a two-speed path to devolution, with some areas grasping the promised power to shape their own destiny while others are left behind.

Staffordshire CC, for example, faces pressure from its southern districts to follow them into the West Midlands Combined Authority.

But populations elsewhere in the county look towards Manchester, Derbyshire or its own urban centre of Stoke-on-Trent rather than Birmingham, leaving the county unsure where to turn.

Some districts in north Worcestershire are also having their heads turned by the West Midlands deal.

Staffordshire Moorlands view from the Roaches

Source: Ian Parkes

Northern Staffordshire districts ,such as Staffordshire Moorlands, look towards Stoke-on-Trent or Manchester rather than Birmingham

And over in North Yorkshire, the county council faces losing three of its seven districts - Craven, Harrogate and Selby –to the Leeds City Region. York is already a member of the West Yorkshire combined authority which oversees the Leeds City Region. This leaves the county without an obvious centre and its population halved.

The West Yorkshire combined authority is in the throes of negotiating a more extensive devolution deal with government and has recently rebuffed an appeal from authorities in north and east Yorkshire to form a combined authority covering the entire historic county.

County Councils Network director Simon Edwards said a solution could be that councils join one combined authority but choose associate membership of others as required.

“Local governance arrangements and boundaries should be developed on the local level and not imposed by central government”, he said.

In East Yorkshire, many think the most obvious arrangement would be for Hull City Council and East Riding of Yorkshire Council to form a combined authority with North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire councils on the Humber’s south bank.

But memories of the unloved former Humberside CC linger. While North Lincolnshire leader Liz Redfearn (Con) complained in June about the threat of a “Hull-based takeover”, she now says the two banks of the Humber are now talking.

Catherine Staite, director of the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham said that “personalities are often an issue where people cannot agree, far more so than political differences. I think people should be called to account where bad relations act as a barrier to devolution.”

She added: “That said, geography is a difficulty”.

Lincoln City Council could join a combined authority covering the historic boundaries of Lincolnshire

Lincoln City Council could join a combined authority covering the historic boundaries of Lincolnshire

Meanwhile, Lincolnshire CC appears to have done little about devolution until the general election clarified government policy but is now promoting a combined authority with its districts: North Lincolnshire, North East Lincolnshire and Peterborough City Council.

Peterborough has, however, made a separate devolution bid with Cambridgeshire and also wants an economic development and skills partnership for its travel-to-work area.

This bid includes districts in southern Lincolnshire, Rutland CC and King’s Lynn & West Norfolk BC, illustrating the fluid nature of many of the new boundaries being drawn on the local government map.

It is not just rural areas that are struggling to find a home.

Urban areas such as Milton Keynes and Bedfordshire; and Berkshire have yet to move on devolution, despite both contributing more to the economy than the Sheffield City Region.

Such untidiness normally provokes calls for ministers to ‘step in’.

But if councils decline to do something that is supposedly voluntary anyway, need anyone external do anything?

Alex Thomson, director of the Localis think tank does not think there should be “someone in Whitehall who says ‘you go there, and you go there’”.

“It would not be very localist for the government to force people into arrangements and it would be counter-productive anyway since it greatly reduces the chance of success if people are forced to work together, because almost certainly the outcomes will not be as good where there isn’t a degree of trust between the partner authorities.”

It will be a real test of ministers’ professed localism if, faced with that, they do keep their hands off.

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