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Promised devolution of skills and health hit by Whitehall impasse

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Key elements of devolution deals previously agreed with the government are under threat due to inertia within government, LGC has learned.

A combination of the Conservatives’ loss of a Commons majority, a civil service largely focused on Brexit negotiations, and the Department for Communities & Local Government being consumed by the response to the Grenfell Tower fire are putting policies, including greater control over skills and health, in precarious positions.

Meanwhile bids for reorganisation in two-tier areas are reported to be gathering dust on Whitehall desks.

The concern comes a month after the future funding of local government was plunged into uncertainty after the government abandoned the Local Government Finance Bill set to introduce the planned national rollout of 100% business rates retention in 2019-20.

It follows warnings from leading local government figures that the sector was facing a policy logjam.

LGC understands the six mayoral combined authorities are concerned about potential delays to the devolution of 19+ adult skills budgets. This is due to take place in 2018-19 but secondary legislation is required for it to proceed. Meanwhile, areas are still waiting to find out the exact value of their budgets and what restrictions will be placed on the way they are spent.

A report which went before the Greater Manchester CA three weeks ago said the “timeline for a fully devolved [adult education budget] in 2018-19 is now in doubt” due to ministerial decisions being “paused” as a result of the general election.

In an interview with LGC, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham (Lab) said: “I gather there are some question marks about the adult skills budget and some moves within government to rewrite the devolution agreement on that. I can tell you now for certain that Greater Manchester will absolutely resist any attempt to change the terms of that deal.”

Areas had hoped legislation could be passed before summer recess but Tees Valley CA managing director Andrew Lewis told LGC that had “not proved possible”.

“There’s a lot of issues to be resolved and it’s getting pretty tight now for the 2018 commitment but we are clear the government has made that commitment and we have no reason to believe that will be reneged upon, but the to-do list to get to that stage is pretty extensive,” said Mr Lewis.

The Department for Education has yet to respond to a request for comment.

Frustration with the government is also growing in In London, which is waiting for devolution of powers over health and social care announced by chancellor Phillip Hammond at the March Budget. LGC understands a promised memorandum of understanding has been agreed by all involved, including the Department of Health and the Treasury, but is waiting for sign-off by Number 10.

In an interview with LGC, Greater London Authority head of paid service Jeff Jacobs said there was “inevitably a degree of angst” about the delay.

LGC has also learned that London mayor Sadiq Khan and London Councils chair Claire Kober (both Lab) wrote to health secretary Jeremy Hunt on 23 June to say they were “disappointed” about the delay and urge him to progress the MoU before he parliamentary recess on Thursday.

A spokesman for the DH, on behalf of the government, said: “We are continuing to work closely with London partners and colleagues across government to finalise this work.”

The Conservative mayor of the West of England CA Tim Bowles questioned the government’s commitment to devolution at the Local Government Association’s conference earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Buckingham CC’s leader Martin Tett (Con) said a decision from ministers on competing reorganisation bids in the county, was not a top priority before summer recess. Reorganisation bids from councils in Oxfordshire and Dorset are also awaiting decisions from ministers.

Cllr Tett told LGC he had “heard informally” that the county’s bid for a single unitary had been agreed by the DCLG before the election.

He said: “The expectation was that had there been a thumping majority it would have sailed through but now everybody is focused on other priorities and Grenfell is the all-consuming issue in DCLG at the moment, while [ministers] have to take account of the parliamentary arithmetic in everything they do now.”

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Readers' comments (1)

  • When so much of skills funding is matched with EU funding it's no surprise there is a delay.

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