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Tough devo deadline will put sector to the test

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Councils that are keen to exploit the government’s offer of extra powers and financial resources will be busy this summer.

While MPs depart for their holiday homes, council leaders and their officials must get their heads down if they are to stand any chance of hitting the chancellor’s devolution deadline.

They have been given less than seven weeks to come up with convincing bids for devolved powers.

Any significant requests for more power, resources and control, must be received by Whitehall officials by 4 September, according to Treasury papers, officially announcing the November spending review.

By any measure, this is a tough and testing deadline to meet, but one which ambitious authorities will miss at their peril.

Local government’s ability to convince the Treasury to pass power and resources from Whitehall to town halls in these few weeks will be essential to the survival of their services as they currently stand.

In addition to brokering devolution deals, ministers are tasked with finding £20bn of cuts to most parts of the public sector, local government included.

Building a devolution bid to satisfy the notoriously tough Treasury will be no mean feat in the time allowed.

The chancellor’s own expectations of devolution bids are set out in his spending review briefing, which is fittingly entitled: A country that lives within its means.

For starters, the briefing demands that bids should not cost the public purse an extra penny; they must be “fiscally neutral” in official parlance.

In exchange, it says, ministers will examine the case for “transforming” local government financing.

Trickier is the expectation that councils can agree on the geographical footprint of deals in time for the deadline.

Securing agreement across local authority and political boundaries in such a short space of time will require a mountain of diplomacy.

Leaders’ desires to secure devolution deals have already sparked tentative talks in Wiltshire, Hertfordshire, and Lincolnshire, to name but a few authority areas.

Those which fail to secure significant powers during the spending review should not give up hope, however.

The door to devolution deals will remain ajar long after the chancellor makes his spending review speech in November, Whitehall sources have confirmed to LGC.

But the most ambitious bids will surely have a greater chance of success during a time of major scrutiny of public finances and while radical reform is on ministers’ minds.

It’s going to be a busy and crucial summer for local government.

         The next print issue of LGC will be on 6th August. Check for daily news, comment and analysis
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