Combined authorities should only be created around major cities, leaving two-tier areas should focus on other priorities, David Cameron’s former local government adviser advocates in an exclusive LGC article.
EXCLUSIVE: Ex-PM’s adviser reveals ministers’ debate over two-tier devo destiny
Alex Morton urges communities secretary Sajid Javid to clear up the current confusion about devolution, writing: “Councils need to be given a clear and unequivocal steer that, outside of the main urban areas, there will be no centrally pushed reorganisation, nor benefits for change.”
His article comes as LGC can reveal intensifying concern across local government that the devolution agenda is lacking direction, with Greater Manchester’s interim mayor Tony Lloyd (Lab) questioning the government’s commitment.
Mr Morton’s article suggests thinking within the government conflates combined authorities with reorganisation and a way for the sector to achieve further savings.
“At times the arguments around reorganisation came close to an ideological belief in ‘bigger is better’ 1970s corporatist thinking,” writes Mr Morton, now director of Field Consulting.
With the country facing housing and social care crises, Mr Morton suggests removing “time-consuming local government reorganisation” from the agenda, but adds there is “a much stronger case for continuing the combined authority experiment with mayors” in major cities.
“But for two-tier areas outside of our cities the focus must shift to other priorities,” he says.
District Councils, Network chair Neil Clarke (Con) told LGC he was “not sure [rural areas] have got our message across yet” that getting councils to work together across an area without a single major city at its core was “more difficult”.
Following Theresa May becoming prime minister in July there has been relative silence from Whitehall about devolution.
Greater Lincolnshire’s deal is now on the cusp of collapse after Lincolnshire CC and South Kesteven DC both voted to reject a combined authority with an elected mayor at its head.
LGC understands Norfolk and Suffolk’s deal is also under threat as councils prepare to vote on proposals later this month.
While chancellor Philip Hammond offered reassurances around devolution in his speech to last month’s Conservative party conference, Mr Javid barely mentioned it in his address. He has spoken little about devolution publicly despite reports he has been supportive when speaking to local leaders.
Mr Lloyd told LGC Mr Hammond “hasn’t shown the same level of interest and enthusiasm” to devolve powers as his predecessor.
He said: “I do regret George Osborne not being there because there’s no doubt George Osborne believed in and drove the devolution agenda. I cannot point to the Osborne figure in the government today who has got the same total commitment and ambition to see that delivered.”
Mr Lloyd said civil servants from the Treasury, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and Department for Communities & Local Government had been encouraging, but “we’re looking for that language to be translated into action” at the autumn statement on 23 November.
“We’re not asking for declarations of love, we’re asking for the practicalities that will translate into delivering the Northern Powerhouse concept and the devolution process,” said Mr Lloyd.
Another senior source in Greater Manchester told LGC devolution was “lacking a ministerial champion” but thought the lack of leadership was due to Brexit dominating ministers’ discussions and “not ideological”.
It is widely understood Mr Javid’s predecessor Greg Clark, now business secretary, has retained a strong interest in the devolution agenda as part of his industrial strategy remit.
Andrew Carter, deputy chief executive of Centre for Cities, said a “live debating point” between the Treasury, BEIS, and DCLG was whether industrial strategy should focus on specific sectors or on places and building on their strengths. That debate had an impact of slowing the devolution drive, he added.
Ex-PM's adviser reveals ministers' debate over two-tier devo destiny