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Councils have been marched from pillar to post – only to be thwarted by confused ministers

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The May government’s policy on devolution has so far been marked by paralysis. That much has been apparent for some time. 

Her administration has either been unable to decide whether it wants to push through a far-reaching hand-down of power or its individual ministers have been unwilling to stick their heads above the parapet to actually deliver this objective.

However, an article for LGC by Alex Morton, David Cameron’s local government adviser from 2013 to 2016, hints at tensions within the government long before Theresa May entered No 10. While ministers have been outwardly keen to offer devolution for all, Mr Morton draws a distinction between the biggest cities, around which he believes the combined authority model could succeed, and two-tier areas where he believes it is a distraction.

Mr Morton also breaks a taboo by using the dreaded R word – reorganisation – in reference to the creation of combined authorities, and appears to equate the new bodies as something akin to the old metropolitan counties, established in 1974. “At times the arguments around reorganisation came close to an ideological belief in ‘bigger is better’ 1970s corporatist thinking,” he writes.

Central confusion should not thwart the empowerment of the most efficient part of the public sector

The combined authority approach is associated with Greg Clark, but has been resisted by certain other ministers. Since Mr Clark left his role as communities secretary in July policy has become murky, contributing to deals in both metropolitan and predominantly two-tier areas collapsing.

It should be councils’ responsibility to get devo deals over the line, but one can hardly accuse councillors of lacking ambition if they vote against deals when there is little positive mood music from ministers that they will enthusiastically honour central government’s side of the bargain.

Non-metropolitan councils did not decide upon combined authorities as being the means through which power is devolved, it was the government. But councils are used to exploiting whatever opportunities arise within the central straitjacket and tried their best to make it work (even though there is something cumbersome about a combined authority sitting on top of the existing two-tier system). Councils have been marched from pillar to post in search of devolution and, rather than seeing their dreams now fade due to the centre’s lukewarm attitude, deserve to be told if ministerial priorities have changed.

It may well be the case that Mr Clark, now business secretary, is still the Cabinet’s driver of devolution. Should this be the case, it suggests devolution policy has been subsumed into the government’s broader industrial strategy, with an emphasis on new powers to help areas spur growth. However, devolution should be about more than ensuring areas are attractive to employers, important though this is. Central confusion about organisational models should not thwart the empowerment of the most efficient, transparent and democratic part of the public sector when other local public services are crying out for councils’ leadership and expertise.

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