As well as being a front runner in seeking devolved powers from Whitehall, Cornwall Council is committed to ‘double devolution’ and devolving responsibility to communities across the county.
We recently passed a significant milestone in handing over a wide range of sites and services to St Austell Town Council, as part of a phased approach in what we believe is one of the largest such devolution packages anywhere in the country.
For 18 months my team has been working closely with St Austell on a phased devolution package for a larger numbers of assets and services in the town. In April 2016 St Austell took responsibility for allotments and public conveniences and in December it celebrated taking over responsibility for over 20 important local community sites and services. The sites transferred include open spaces and play areas and a major agency agreement that includes responsibility for open and closed churchyards and highways, building on the work St Austell already does to maintain public rights of way. The package has also included the transfer of staff under TUPE. The next phase, due to start in early summer, will include the library, community buildings and two car parks.
Talking to colleagues across England it appears that this makes it one of the biggest ‘total place’ devolution packages in the country. I strongly believe that local accountability for service delivery will be much better under this arrangement as, for example, it means that virtually all of the grass cutting in public areas in the town will now be done by St Austell. Previously some would have been done by the environment service, some by highways service and some by the town council and if a resident wanted to complain they could easily be sent on a telephone merry-go-round. All local partners strongly believe St Austell is the best long-term custodian of these important local assets and services. As well as being able to shape services to more closely meet local need, many services can be delivered more effectively and economically by St Austell, which is also better placed to seek external investment.
Cornwall’s devolution programme offers local councils and communities the opportunity to take on services. We aspire to give communities more influence and involvement in how services are delivered we have buy-in for that from councillors and senior managers. While I accept it’s partly budget pressures that is making us think differently about how we do business, a huge driver for us is the desire to put residents at the heart of decision making.
The devolution programme is also helping to build relationships between Cornwall Council and local city, town and parish councils, which ensures we are all better prepared to share future challenges. Working with the local council sector, the Cornwall Association of Local Councils and others is hugely important as Cornwall is so geographically dispersed. The work is challenging and is breaking new ground. It has been seen as a potential threat by operational managers but by looking at the ‘total place’ concept in the longer term and with the can-do attitude among Cornwall’s city, town and parish colleagues, anything is possible.
To date the team has delivered nearly 100 devolution projects across Cornwall. These have ranged from simpler proposals such as licenses for planting flower beds, through to handing over large buildings and locally important community assets such as monuments and clock towers; or, in St Austell’s case, taking a total place-based approach.
Due to the scale of the programme, we needed robust programme management and decision making processes. It was essential to agree some clear policies and procedures within an overall framework to ensure transparency and consistency whilst recognising that each community is different and has different needs. This included developing a devolution framework, which sets out a number of options as to how local communities can have a greater say in service delivery that vary from a monitoring role in service delivery through to the full transfer down of the service or asset. The council has also produced a series of guides and checklists so that communities are aware of important issues they need to consider when taking on services.
This has been a very exciting but challenging two years as this is ground-breaking work and the St Austell devolution package is one of the most ambitious anywhere in England. Many other areas are showing a keen interest in it. It has been hard work and staff in the devolution team but they have worked closely with staff from other service delivery areas, including colleagues in legal, HR and finance, as well as staff at other authorities and councillors to make the transfers as smooth as possible. It is a tribute to their professionalism and patience.
Rob Andrew, assistant head of localism and devolution, Cornwall Council