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Dick Sorabji: This round of devo has changed London boroughs for good

Dick Sorabji
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We are none of us surprised when Louise Casey confirmed neither prime ministers nor permanent secretaries hold local government in the highest regard.

Her call for us to be more effective, assertive and confident speaks to the solution.

As London leaders complete their four-year terms, they have met that test in at least one critical area. Devolution has moved from an aspiration to a reality. Deals have been confirmed across adult skills, employment, health care and business rates.

Devolved employment programmes are driven by four subregional borough partnerships. Adult skills strategy operates at pan-London level, incorporating strategies from four sub-regional partnerships. Health devolution is developing new approaches to integration, estates and prevention.

In all nearly £900m of devolved services are now in play. The money understates the scale of what has been achieved. Directly devolved funds increase influence on other spending areas. Adult skills provision affects 16-19 skills provision; health devolution affects the better care fund and so on. More important is the devolution of policy levers to London, expanding the scope of local government from specific services towards city government.

To get there, London boroughs have needed the confidence to take risks and to adopt very different ways of working.

To convince Whitehall, each deal needed support from all London’s leaders: 32 boroughs, the London Mayor and the City of London. Achieving consensus and coherence on money and policy across 34 elected leaders has itself strengthened London government.

When the logic of service geography demanded it, boroughs have not worried about their status, instead pooling their efforts, working at scale through London’s four sub-regional partnerships. The partnership between the mayor and the boroughs has been strong enough to accept that in differing services the emphasis of leadership will vary between local, pan-London and subregional.

A single voice from all elected London leaders and acceptance of variable roles in collective leadership has helped to convince Westminster that London can do a better job than Whitehall.

The manner in which London has wrested power from Whitehall is changing the way in which London government works. Devolving power to the mayor in 2000 left the nature of government unchanged; instead it moved a centralised model from national to city level.

Today’s London deals distribute decision making through collaboration. So, they seek to capture the benefits of both city scale and local customisation. This is a new and more effective way of governing. It also has more in common with devolution in Britain’s other great cities.

The next four-year term will show how well London manages the opportunity that it has won. Creating that opportunity has required the confidence and effectiveness of which Louise Casey spoke.

Dick Sorabji, corporate director for public policy and affairs, London Councils

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