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Roundtable: The road to devolution

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When Norfolk and Suffolk’s potential devolution deal collapsed late last year, Fiona McDiarmid admits members of council staff spent some time licking their wounds. 

But according to the strategy director at Norfolk CC, a realisation quickly followed: the deal may have been dead, but the aims behind it were anything but.

“We still have the ambitions that we set out in our devolution deal. What we’re trying to establish is what are the tools we can use to get hold of those [ambitions]?”

Ms McDiarmid was speaking at LGC’s latest roundtable event, held in association with NSL and Agilisys. It brought together individuals from councils across the country, all at different steps in the devolution journey. Interestingly, however, all were trying to answer the question posed by Ms McDiarmid: how can the ambitions that lie behind a desire for devolution be transformed into reality? What might be the obstacles along the way?

The event was held on the same day as the Queen’s Speech, an illustration of the uncertainty permeating government since the unexpected general election and its equally unexpected results. When considering the possible enablers to progress on devolution, some argued the lack of national stability could actually be an important one.


Pete Bungard, chief executive, Gloucestershire CC

Paul Carter (Con), leader, Kent CC

Simon Fletcher, managing consultant, Agilisys

Nick Golding, editor, LGC (chair)

Peter John (Lab), leader, Southwark LBC

Glen Manley, associate director, local government, NSL

Fiona McDiarmid, strategy director, Norfolk CC

Tony Smith, policy executive, Birmingham City Council

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

“Central government is not going to be in a position to come out with bold and ambitious new initiatives,” said Ms McDiarmid. “It’s going to have to deal with Brexit and keep things hanging together. So that presents an opportunity for us.”

She added: “There’s a sense [for us] of trying to go back on the front foot with government, rather than being told which bits of process we need to go through, and what we need to have.”

Dick Sorabji, corporate director of policy and public affairs at London Councils, also saw opportunity in the face of national political uncertainty. “There is an irony that we have a hung parliament; we have a period of time when no government’s likely to be able to do dramatic things, and solve big social problems.

“It’s just the moment when one, ideally, would want to have a lot of local experiments, with real freedom to try things out. This is the very moment when that sort of locally-driven initiative could bail out a government that’s in deep trouble, with the numbers that it’s got in parliament.”

As a policy executive at Birmingham City Council, Tony Smith has already had a taste of devolution. The West Midlands Combined Authority was formally established in June 2016, and the area’s first mayor elected in May this year. But when it came to finding answers to tricky questions about what devolution in the area would actually look like, Mr Smith also felt the state of flux at the national level could be helpful.

“Where there is an opportunity is in the slow realisation, in government, that the current system is bust. It’s partly bust because austerity has been driven so hard into local government that it’s not sustainable, or won’t be before too long. It’s also bust because it was never a very good system in the first place.

“If they are having another look at austerity, for political reasons, there is an opportunity for us to encourage them to take a bolder look at the whole system.

“That’s where we can get the whole-place budgeting fiscal devolution agenda back on track,” he argued. “That’s certainly what we’re trying to do from the West Midlands point of view. If they do carry on with the business rates retention [since the roundtable, LGC has reported full business rates retention has been suspended indefinitely, although pilots will go ahead] it begs some other questions, about how public services are funded, how investment is funded, things like enterprise zones. Then you add in the questions about sustainability of social care, how that’s actually funded.

“If we’re asking for more devolution, what are the financial implications of that on the whole system? There’s a big debate which we could, collectively, open up to our advantage.”

It was a comment that touched on one of the key themes of this roundtable discussion: governance. How best to resolve this thorny devolution issue? For Peter John (Lab), leader of Southwark LBC, the answer to that question was ‘as soon as possible’.

“Is strikes me the governance is so important, [but] we try and brush it aside. I’m sure if you asked all your leaders: ‘Do you want devolution?’ they would reply: ‘Yes, we do’. It’s the same thing in London: ‘Yes, we do.’

“When it comes down to ‘what does it look like?’ and ‘how is it managed?’, that’s where it begins to fall down. Unless we crack some of the governance, it’s always going to be the issue that government says: ‘Have you got governance sorted out?’ [and we say]: ‘Don’t worry, we will.’ It’s slightly chicken and egg, but I wonder whether we need to crack governance in a more serious way.”

He added: “It’s problematic that we haven’t got a governance structure in place and fixed, saying: ‘Any devolution that comes, this is what it’s going to look like in terms of governance.’”

Others felt there was the danger of getting too hung up on creating new governance structures. When Gloucestershire CC created a single-county devolution proposal two years ago, the government said the area would have to have an elected mayor; a deal breaker for some local MPs. Once the bid was abandoned, local staff considered how many of their original aims could be met without the formal blessing of devolution.

“The answer was that probably around 70% was in our gift; the enabling legislations were there and we didn’t need anything else,” reported Pete Bungard, chief executive at Gloucestershire CC. “But we weren’t aligned; the partners weren’t aligned at the time.”

For Mr Sorabji, it was a case of working out the most appropriate governance structure for a specific area. “I wonder if we should see the governance question, not from any national party’s point of view, but our point of view, about what effectively delivers the things that we need.

“Often what we’re trying to do is collaborate – either across local government, or across local government and other bits of the public sector, maybe the private sector – to do something we couldn’t do on our own. We need the governance that works for us. We may need to put a gloss on it that fits with the national government of the day, to sell it to them, but that underlying bit, our experience has been that trust is really important.

“[For] a lot of our sub-regions, within London, their geography is driven more by good relationships. It’s not physical geography; it’s trust geography.”

Ensuring devolution deals respect those boundaries of trust and relationships, even if they might appear geographically illogical, was another key theme of the debate. Ms McDiarmid, for instance, reported that one of the key challenges with the devolution deal that had been on the table for her area was that it covered two counties and that it was contingent on having an elected mayor for the entire area.

“Our view is that [Norfolk] is the entity that makes sense to Norfolk people. That’s the entity that makes sense to our politicians. We welcome that we’re not talking about mayors any more. Having one mayor for Norfolk and Suffolk was really difficult; very difficult for politicians locally.

“People were willing to go with it, as: ‘OK, we can live with it, if the prize is big enough, and worth it, and we can get things that we think are really important for Norfolk and Suffolk.’ Ultimately, the prize wasn’t deemed big enough to actually carry that.”

She added: “There are a lot of people in Norfolk who are very pleased we’ve not got a devolution deal, and we’ve not got a mayor, [because they] feel very strongly that Norfolk is the entity to lead forward.”

Paul Carter (Con), Kent CC’s leader, also welcomed the government’s apparent abandonment of elected mayors as a precondition to devolution deals. “There is the necessity, wherever possible, to have coterminous local government backers, for devolution to take place intelligently.

“The carve-up of the country, around health economies, has been a complete dog’s breakfast.

“Size and scale does matter, and rather than talking about combined authorities, with directly-elected mayors, I’m delighted the directly-elected mayors appear, so far, to [no longer be] a condition. Authorities combined in intelligent coalescences can actually make it easier for the government and Whitehall to passport control regional influence over public sector reform in our areas.”

Even areas that are advanced on devolution are not necessarily free of boundary issues, reported Birmingham’s Mr Smith. “We’ve got interesting boundary issues ourselves [in the West Midlands], because we’re trying to operate across a three-LEP boundary, that goes way beyond the metropolitan area. We’re having interesting discussions with the government about how much they can devolve to that area, which is beyond the accountability of the mayor. We’re not immune from the same complexities of boundary discussions.”

Some of the panelists saw the capacity to negotiate such difficult conversations – or, more accurately, the lack thereof – as another potential challenge to successful devolution.

“Some of these are really big, knotty issues and as the public sector knows there’s not much capacity left,” argued Mr John. He pointed out policy departments were some of the first to be stripped back when austerity hit.

In the West Midlands, the issue of ensuring sufficient capacity in the combined authority is a current one. “We’re appointing the management structures for the combined authorities as we speak,” reported Mr Smith. “How we do it remains to be seen – whether we do revenue deals with the government, whether we use precepts, whether we have greater contributions from individual authorities because it allows them to then free up their own resource. It will be a mixture, probably, but we will have to create the policy and leadership capacity at that level to make it work properly.”

For Simon Fletcher, managing consultant at Agilisys, this was an area in which the private sector could help. “We’re working with a number of councils, and we’re providing that headspace and that capacity. So, we aren’t necessarily setting vision and strategy because that’s very much for the council to do, but we’re certainly supporting the development and implementation of some of those major strategic visions as well as helping out the local authorities.”

Glen Manley of NSL, said his organization and the wider private sector are ready to support Local Authorities by delivering the valuable services communities expect, leaving the public sector to manage the strategic direction: “Tell us your problems and we’ll deliver the solutions that meet your outcomes,” he said.

“After all, the people we all serve don’t care about the politics, they rightly care about the support they and their families need on a day to day basis.”

Whatever the practicalities might be, Mr Carter’s view was that it was worth local councils dipping their toes into devolution sooner rather than later. “Whatever you agree on devolution, it doesn’t have to be forever,” he emphasised.

“[You can run] significant pilots at scale, so let’s light the blue touch paper and see what happens. If the outcomes aren’t positive, then you go back to Whitehall running the business for you. If you can, deliver the outcomes from the deal that you signed up to with government. What is the matrix that you’re going to measure success by? Agree all that lot, and be empowered to get on and see whether you can do it.

He concluded: “What have [we] got to lose?”


simon fletcher

simon fletcher NSL Agilisys roundtable June 2017

Source: Peter Searle

Simon Fletcher

Expert comment: We have the desire; we must be brave

We were delighted to co-host this round table discussion, with our colleagues at NSL, on a subject which is both topical and fascinating.

Clearly there is a desire across the public sector for devolution of further powers based on local strategic priorities rather than a ‘one size fits all’ structure. With that a desire, and an acceptance, that successful local governance arrangements are key to unlocking the support required from central government.

Most encouraging was that, despite the many examples of frustration and failed devolution proposals shared, attendees were unanimous in calling on central government to continue with the agenda, be brave and support multiple pilots to see what works. 

One of the main take-aways was that there is a role for the private sector to provide crucial capacity and support to the development of strategic approaches to devolution and reorganisation, and in implementing the change programmes which flow from it.

Simon Fletcher, management consultant, Agilisys







glen manley

glen manley NSL Agilisys roundtable June 2017

Glen Manley

Expert comment: Our communities need action now

NSL’s collaboration with Agilisys, experienced council leaders and executives to deliver such a meaningful event demonstrates our commitment to supporting transformation in local government – something increasingly, and rightfully, demanded by their communities - there in itself lies the heart of the debate.

We face the opportunity of generations to deliver positive change to the communities we all serve. These communities demand that we act now in order to better support them and their families - I hope that generations to come will look back and be proud that we delivered on those expectations.

Glen Manley, associate director for local government, NSL

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