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Lack of DCLG capacity blamed for absence of new devo deals

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A lack of capacity among ministers and civil servants at the Department for Communities & Local Government has been blamed for the absence of any new devolution deals being included in the autumn statement.

Concerns have also been raised that the government’s devolution drive is stalling. 

LGC previously reported how announcements relating to Lancashire and the Solent had been anticipated.

Simon Blackburn (Lab), chair of Lancashire’s shadow combined authority, told LGC: “It’s always been clear that the government’s current focus has been on tying up the deals which are currently being done or scrapping those which are falling apart, and they are not going to move on to a whole bunch of other stuff before they have dealt with that.”

LGC previously reported how deals for Greater Lincolnshire and Norfolk and Suffolk have collapsed, while the West of England and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough agreements have now been approved locally.

Cllr Blackburn said “an awful lot of parliamentary time” was needed to work up devolution deals and the parliamentary orders, adding that he was “not disheartened” by the fact Lancashire was not mentioned in yesterday’s autumn statement.

“No other areas were mentioned so it’s not as though we’ve been missed off the list – there is no list,” he said.

Cllr Blackburn, who is also leader of Blackpool Council, said he had a “very positive” meeting with Northern Powerhouse minister Andrew Percy on Tuesday.

Mr Percy was “seeking reassurance” Lancashire’s leaders were “not going to implode as we’ve seen in other places”, said Cllr Blackburn.

He added: “I made the point one of the reasons we’ve taken so long here is that we’ve decided to fall out with each other first and reach a point we could all agree on and then move forward so there shouldn’t be any of the last minute dramas we’ve seen elsewhere. He and his officials appeared to be very satisfied with that.”

Mr Percy has encouraged Lancashire’s leaders to “continue going at our plans with some vigour and some momentum”, said Cllr Blackburn.

“The order to create our combined authority is with officials at the moment but will be with politicians in due course,” he said. “I remain confident that will come into effect on 1 April next year and the negotiations continue.”

LGC understands a proposed deal for the Solent has also stalled as a result of ministers and civil servants being occupied with ensuring agreements elsewhere go ahead.

dispute with Hampshire CC has also hampered progress and LGC understands the government wants local leaders to continue discussions to see if they can find a consensus.

However, a meeting between the leaders of Portsmouth and Southampton city councils, Isle of Wight Council, and Hampshire CC on Monday did not result in a breakthrough.

Hampshire’s leader Roy Perry (Con) is sceptical of the current proposal and of any plans for some of the county’s districts to join forces with the three unitaries. LGC also understands some of Hampshire’s MPs are wary of the plans.

The issue is due to be discussed by Hampshire CC’s full council today.

Jessica Studdert, deputy director of the New Local Government Network, thought the fact that no new devolution deals were announced in the autumn statement was “a sign that it is stalling in practice”. She added: “The rigidity of the government’s approach is proving difficult in too many areas, and the process seems to be trumping principle.”

A DCLG spokesman said: “We’re 100% committed to devolution and handing decision-making power back to local people. Whilst it’s disappointing that King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council has decided not to proceed with their proposed devolution deal, it has no impact on the Department’s ability to process other devolution deals.”

The autumn statement did, however, contain more encouraging news for London and the West Midlands.

While London is to get control of its share of the adult education budget from 2019-20, that is a power which has been devolved to every area with a devolution deal apart from Cornwall and the Leeds City Region, which do not have mayors.

London will also get control of its share of the work and health programme’s budget, as long as it agrees to “co-fund” the measure, the autumn statement said. This is also true of Greater Manchester, which has already agreed to put money in itself. Meanwhile, London will also receive an affordable housing settlement of £3.15bn to deliver 90,000 homes starting in 2020-21. 

The autumn statement document said the government would also “begin talks” on devolving future transport funding to Greater Manchester, while the government will also “continue to work towards a second devolution deal with the West Midlands Combined Authority”.

Meanwhile, mayoral combined authorities are to gain powers to borrow in relation to all of their functions, not just transport as at present. LGC reported last week this was under consideration by ministers, amid widespread frustration among combined authorities.

This story was updated at 9.28am on 25 November to incorporate the DCLG’s comment.

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