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London's leaders to resist fixed 'super borough' groupings

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Leaders in London will resist any attempts by central government to fix multi-borough grouping arrangements in return for devolved powers, LGC has been told.

LGC exclusively revealed last week that mayor Boris Johnson, 32 borough leaders, and the City of London Corporation had signed off on devolution demands which will form the basis for negotiations with government over the summer. It is hoped a deal can be agreed ahead of the comprehensive spending review.

The ambitious proposals include a bid to redesign court services, probation and community rehabilitation programmes, as well as devolution of budgets for health, housing, skills and employment services.

A paper setting out London’s devolution demands, seen by LGC, suggests some budgets could be devolved to individual boroughs, some on a pan-London basis and others to multi-borough groupings. The document said governance arrangements for these groupings that could satisfy the government would need to be developed. Council leaders told LGC these ‘super-borough’ arrangements should not be fixed.

Sir Steve Bullock (Lab), Lewisham LBC’s mayor and London Councils’ executive member for housing, told LGC: “The combinations of boroughs you might need to work with in terms of health services might not be the same boroughs you need to work with in other contexts and that’s going to be quite a tricky thing to get right.”

Bexley LBC leader Teresa O’Neill (Con), Conservative group lead on London Councils, said it “doesn’t make sense” to force councils to work together in fixed partnerships, especially outer London boroughs which might want to work with local authorities outside the capital.

Proposals around skills and employment, such as designing and delivering a successor to the Work Programme, are expected to be looked on most favourably by civil servants in Whitehall, while it is anticipated the government will take more convincing to agree to demands over health and housing.

Housing proposals include reforming the right-to-buy rules and allowing boroughs to pool housing revenue account borrowing capacities. LGC understands that while proposals to pool health and social care budgets at borough level are likely to find favour with NHS England, demands for the pan-London devolution of strategic and regulatory oversight of the NHS will be a harder sell.

Cllr O’Neill, who is London Councils executive member for health, told LGC local authorities were already pooling budgets and working more closely with NHS partners.

“Our argument is we can do more,” said Cllr O’Neill. “We’ve got the structure as health and wellbeing boards are already established, and although there is a wide variation in what people are doing there is a responsibility and capability there which can be built on.”

LGC understands that although NHS England is not ruling out large-scale devolution to London, senior figures will want to see evidence of engagement from clinical commissioning groups and a similar determination to work together to that seen in Greater Manchester.

LGC asked all government departments affected by London’s devolution demands whether they were open to what was being proposed.  

In a joint response a government spokeswoman said: “Devolving power to local people who know their areas best is a key part of our One Nation approach to rebalancing our economy, giving every part of the country the chance to decide on the issues that affect them.”

She added: “We are in discussion with London Councils and the Greater London Authority, who are running a joint programme to develop proposals for further devolution in London, and will consider the proposals once they have been formally received.”

Picture taken by Maciek Lulko

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