A senior Conservative council leader has called on the government to give “absolute clarity” on the terms of negotiating devolution deals - amid claims of “mixed messages” from ministers and civil servants.
Speaking to LGC ahead of the Conservative party conference this week, Paul Carter (Con), chair of the County Councils Network and leader of Kent CC, called for a “grown-up conversation with government about what their expectation is and what they’re prepared to concede”.
He said council leaders were receiving “mixed messages”, causing confusion over issues like the importance of submitting bids by the last month’s deadline and whether they should cover a minimum population.
“I’ve been in a number of conversations with both civil servants, and in some cases ministers, that have given different views. Let’s have absolute clarity,” he added.
In total, the government received 38 devolution bids from groups of councils across the UK, many of which were hastily pulled together in the weeks following the announced of the deadline in the July Budget.
Cllr Carter told LGC that what was at stake - in terms of devolution of power from Whitehall and the reform of public services - was huge and should not be rushed.
“This has the potential to be the English devolution deal with government. The potential there for empowered local government is enormous,” he added.
“We need to take the appropriate time to think this through, to work out what good can look like in the delivery of public services in our areas.”
Kent CC along with its districts and Medway Council are developing a devolution bid with other local partners, including health.
Cllr Carter said: “In Kent we are being measured, putting together a compelling case for devolution to Kent and Medway that will be with the secretary of state early in the New Year. It takes time to work up those propositions with partners that are well thought through.”
Several sources involved in the development and negotiation of devolution deals have also complained of mixed messages from government departments.
One source close to a northern devolution bid told LGC the problem was Whitehall did not act “strategically”.
“Different departments have different policies and some departments are more engaged than others. That is improving; I think the Treasury and [the Department for Communities & Local Government] are knocking heads together.”
A spokesman for DCLG said: “The government has made absolutely clear its commitment to devolve far-reaching powers away from Whitehall to local communities.
“We’ve already had hugely ambitious proposals from all over the country, showing the real appetite there is from local leaders for devolution. There is no one-size-fits-all solution and we will continue to work with local leaders to achieve ambitious deals.”