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Devolution: by no means a done deal

Rob Turner Rob Turner

Government is clear that devolution is central to levelling-up, but is it right for every place? Rob Turner looks at how local authorities can strike deals that excite their communities and provide the powers and investment needed to deliver change.

The Levelling up White Paper sets out a mission that “by 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and simplified, long-term funding settlement”.

In partnership with the County Councils Network (CCN), we've been working with the front-runners, identified in the White Paper as priorities for the next wave of devolution deals, as they work with government to build their cases for further powers.

As with each of the 12 missions there's a challenge in translating good policy ambition in the centre into practical action on the ground. Front-runners, while passionate about the potential opportunities presented, are acutely aware of the volume of work needed to deliver meaningful change and want to ensure that the juice is worth the squeeze.

Reflecting on conversations with local and government stakeholders, there are four critical success factors to making devolution work.

Ambition

With a 'devolution framework' set out in the Levelling up White Paper, it's all too easy for local attention and discussion to be drawn to this. Although valuable, particularly in terms of considerations around governance, it's important not to miss two important clauses in the preceding paragraph: “These are not minimum offers” and “there will also be scope to negotiate further powers”.

Devolution is not a ‘one size fits all’ package. It will require tailoring, and government is clear that places should not be bound by frameworks or precedent and instead bring forward ambitious plans. When pitching for the powers you want, think about the needs and opportunities you face, and what levers of control will enable you to bring about change.

Funding

Given the range of financial pressures facing the sector, any negotiations can rightly be expected to come back to money. Therefore, understanding the amount of funding that can be secured will obviously be an important part of both negotiations with government and communication with key stakeholders locally.

However, devolution is broader than securing funding. It's about providing places with the powers and flexibilities to make a difference. Money will always be part of the negotiation, but it can't be the sole or even the primary agenda item. It's critical for local authorities to understand – and be able to communicate to local stakeholders – the ‘value’ of the ‘non-cash’ powers and flexibilities. This will be essential in providing local assurance that the deal struck is a ‘good one’.

Capacity

Deal making is resource-intensive for both local authorities and central government. For the local authorities this is exacerbated by the resource required to run the necessary consultation, engagement and elections locally. These processes need to be robust and withstand external scrutiny.

Therefore, it's important to understand locally what is needed at what stage so that resources can be managed. Consultation and engagement exercises should be mapped out as early as possible.

It will also be important that places plan early for the implementation requirements once the deal has been agreed.

Timing

Devolution involves both politics and legislative change. This introduces a significant degree of uncertainty. It requires places to balance the process for getting approval of a deal and any associated change in governance locally with the timetable for legislative approval.

This requires proactivity in terms of driving the process forward; planning in terms of aligning decisions to local elections; and pragmatism as plans may need to shift as legislative timetables move.

The devolution ambition, set out in the White Paper, will only work if front runners can successfully negotiate meaningful and viable deals that deliver for their communities. This will require flexibility and compromise from all stakeholders, both local and national, the opportunity is there if they can grasp it.

For more insight and guidance, get in touch with Rob Turner.

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