As post-Brexit uncertainty continues to pervade many aspects of the government, there are councils getting on with devolution; some quietly, others attracting more attention.
The perception is that devolution has been losing momentum recently, almost certainly affecting the commitment of its most resilient and passionate advocates, let alone those less keen.
The Centre for Public Scrutiny has undertaken new research with those areas that have either agreed a devolution deal, or where a deal is in development. This includes areas where a combined authority is in place. The full report, Governance and Devolution: Charting the Way, will be launched at the CfPS conference on 1 December.
The findings show, unsurprisingly maybe, that there is no easy prescription for good governance under devolved arrangements. Lessons are being learnt; hard ones in relation to the perennial issue of securing political buy-in, which is challenging at the best of times and there is a consistent message that Whitehall’s approach is not helping. A lack of understanding of how local democracy works, the inherent secrecy of the negotiation process and the lack of clarity over the government’s overall objectives have created real barriers to anchoring local discussions on devolution and its benefits.
On the subject of the directly elected mayor, agreement to which was an act of pure pragmatism for many, combined authority areas are working hard to establish how this will work in practice. Whilst it was a legal necessity to set out the distinctions and limits of mayoral powers and those of the combined authority and its constituent councils, many of those interviewed cited this as important in getting the deals over the line in their areas. Important governance safeguards, such as these, gave political leaders the confidence to proceed.
Areas are now thinking carefully about how these safeguards might operate as the elections get closer. As one interviewee stated: “we have consistently talked about the mayor and the combined authority acting together as a single unit, not separately”. In reality, it is very unlikely that mayors will be satisfied in being a spectator to combined authority decisions on issues that cut very close to their responsibilities. The mayor’s direct personal mandate, and their potentially high profile, will make an expansion of their influence into combined area-reserved matters likely. All interviewees agreed the key to success would be the personal style of the mayor and the individual members of the combined authority cabinet and building good working relations.
Pragmatism, flexibility and a ‘wait and see’ approach are, however, only parts of the answer. Creating the right culture and environment for the combined authority, councils and mayor to operate is essential. This is about being clear on expected behaviours, duties and roles and creating ways of working that promote transparency, accountability and involvement. All of this must be consciously built, not left to chance.
Lord Kerslake, chair, Centre for Public Scrutiny