Turbo-charging devolution

Local government’s response to COVID-19 has demonstrated that it does deliver and can be trusted. Now is the time for a new devolution settlement.

Never has the role of local authorities been more significant in the lives of people living across the country. 

Whether it be supporting vulnerable residents with emergency food deliveries or giving lifeline grant support to local businesses, or public health teams protecting residents from COVID-19, councils have faced up to the challenges presented by the pandemic. 

The response to COVID-19 reinforces the strong case for greater devolution of powers to local communities; councils have demonstrated that, with the right funding and freedoms, they can improve people’s lives and support their communities.

This is why, a number of months ago, a cross-party group of parliamentarians – including LGA vice-presidents – and council leaders came together through the Devolution All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) to lead an inquiry examining the impact of the pandemic on the relationship between local and central government, and what this relationship should look like in the future. 

The inquiry’s recently published report calls on the Government to “turbo-charge the powers of local areas to get on and deliver both national and local priorities”, “reimagine the British state”, and end a “culture of centralisation” in Whitehall and Westminster that is hampering local communities. 

Andrew Lewer MP MBE, Chair of the inquiry, said it represented a “roadmap for the UK Government to move away from a centralised model of governance where Whitehall is overburdened, and local areas are underpowered”.

Some of its key recommendations are summarised in the panel below, and you can read the report in full at www.connectpa.co.uk/devolution-appg/levelling-up-devo.

A devolution baseline

The Government has previously made a clear commitment to help ‘level up’ the UK, and to transfer funding and powers out of Whitehall and into local communities. 

In the past 10 years, there have been several moves to devolve powers to the local level, and the English devolution agenda has most recently focused on the creation of combined authorities. 

Various powers and budgets have been transferred to combined authorities from Whitehall, based on devolution deals negotiated between local leaders and central government.

The APPG’s report states that “while devolution deals have helped deliver greater autonomy for some parts of the country… the lack of alternative options has hampered efforts to devolve in many local areas”. 

It goes on to call on government to “commit to working with local government to set out a ‘national devolution baseline’ for England, including a list of new powers available to every council, without the need to negotiate a devolution deal, as well as further powers which are available subject to clear eligibility requirements”.

Culture of centralisation

One of the starker divides between central and local government has been a cultural one, with there often being a reluctance in central government to trust councils with greater responsibilities. This sets the UK apart internationally, with it having “one of the most centralised systems of governance in Western Europe”, according to the report. 

Many submissions to this inquiry from figures in local government and independent think-tanks alike point to the challenges presented by a long-standing culture of centralisation. For example, the Centre for Cities think-tank argued that there was “a culture of centralisation and an inherent under-estimation of the role and abilities of local government”, often impeding the Government’s response to emerging issues. 

“Whitehall is overburdened, and local areas underpowered

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, told the inquiry that the job of Prime Minister “is becoming more and more difficult in the modern world, because so much is resting on the shoulders of one person”, and that “Whitehall culture is an ingrained resistance to the idea of places being more assertive”. 

The inquiry highlights how many in government still see local authorities as there to be “instructed rather than engaged as partners”. Without substantial cultural change, devolution to a local level will be hard to achieve. 

In the Ditchley Foundation’s 2020 annual lecture, Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, also recognised the need for Whitehall to change. “If this Government is to reform so much, it must also reform itself… the structures, ambitions and priorities of the Government machine need to change if real reform is to be implemented and to endure,” he said.

“We need to look at how we can develop an even more thoughtful approach to devolution, to urban leadership and to allowing communities to take back more control of the policies that matter to them.”

What next?

Our international competitors and partners have long been able to demonstrate the positive impact greater devolution has had on accountability, financial efficiency and growth. 

As we look towards the long process of economic and social recovery from the pandemic, this gap in local power and autonomy across England needs to be addressed if we are to keep pace on the global stage. 

Over the past decade, England has taken steps towards greater devolution. However, as the APPG report finds, this can, and must, go further and faster. 

Responding to the report’s findings, Cllr James Jamieson, LGA Chairman, has called the report “crucial”, as it “helps move forward a much-needed conversation on devolution”. 

He said: “Councils and parliamentarians should now unite to ensure the Government’s upcoming Devolution and Recovery White Paper brings forward at pace a new devolution settlement for England, led by councils and their local communities.”

Councils are ready to play their part by working with the government to help their communities as we look to recover from the impact of the pandemic.

Councils know their communities the best, and it is important they are equipped with the powers and funding to continue to support them into the future. 

Levelling-up devo – key recommendations 

  • The Government’s Devolution and Recovery White Paper should commit to working with local government to set out a national devolution baseline for England, including a list of new powers available to every council  without the need to negotiate a devolution deal, as well as further powers that are available subject to clear eligibility requirements. Devolution from Whitehall to councils should be by default, and be at the heart of national government policy.
  • An English devolution task force should be established to enable discussion between national and local government on progress with devolution to councils. To ensure a co-produced approach to devolution, it should be led by Number 10, and jointly chaired by the responsible Cabinet minister and a council leader.
  • The Government should build on the approach to future growth funding signalled at the recent Budget, and continue to move away from a pattern of piecemeal, fragmented, and short-term interventions. We must move towards a localist settlement that gives councils the powers and resources to drive green and inclusive growth that meets the needs of their communities.
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