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Brexit is not the reason behind devolution delays – it’s the centre’s reluctance to let go

Steve Atkinson
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Until recently, we were all excited by the prospect of announcements of more combined authorities and associated devolution of powers in early 2017, if not earlier.

Suddenly, it has gone quiet. Why is this? Will the wait be worth it?

The ordinary citizen probably does not share this excitement - yet. Indeed, if you ask people in the street about devolution and combined authorities, you are likely to get a blank look or, at best, a response confusing combined authorities with unitary government – a confusion shared by some county councils.

But these misconceptions both miss and demonstrate the point. To begin with, combined authorities are currently forms without functions, useful only if they receive and effectively perform responsibilities, which are both greater than the sum of responsibilities currently discharged separately, and more efficient and effective. If local people don’t see any difference, what is the point?

So, why the delay? The assumed reason is post-Brexit uncertainty, with the focus of ministers on Europe, rather than matters close to home.

This is becoming a somewhat stale excuse, which, quite frankly, needs to be put in the bin so that we can move on. By endlessly crying ‘Brexit’ we reinforce and become paralysed by the uncertainty and do ourselves and the country no favours now or for the future. If Whitehall can’t give devolution the necessary attention, let them leave it to us to get on with.

However, the real reason behind the silence on devolution is something different: the reluctance of the centre to let go. Time and again in recent years local government, acting on its own or with public sector and business partners, has shown that it can reduce costs, make efficiencies and deliver more and better support for local people than its Whitehall equivalents. We have an enviable track record. Combined authorities, with the fullest devolution of powers and resources should be introduced as a national priority.

There is a saying: ‘if you want something done, and done quickly, give it to a busy person’. Local government is very busy. So, let Whitehall take the counter-intuitive step: give local authorities more responsibilities and associated resources, and quickly.

Steve Atkinson, chief executive, Hinckley and Bosworth BC

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