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Simplifying devolution

Rob Turner Rob Turner

The government's Levelling up agenda includes a commitment to devolution in England. Rob Turner explains what the government’s new framework means for local authorities looking to establish effective leadership on strategic choices and negotiating deals. 

The White Paper provides useful further information on the governance models available to support devolution. Four main governance models seem to be in play, the viability of which is dependent on the relative complexity of the local landscape and political conditions. 

  • leader and cabinet with non-statutory board
  • directly elected leader
  • mayoral combined authority
  • statutory board (non-mayoral combined authority).

For basic county geographies or large unitaries, a basic leader-and-cabinet model with a non-statutory board remains the simplest option, with the county leader adopting a dual role covering traditional county function and the new powers arising from the deal. The White Paper makes clear that dissenting councils in the geography, including districts, will not be able to veto progress which removes a major potential barrier. However, perhaps with this issue in mind, the White Paper does seem to favour the second model, a derivative of the former but with the more robust political mandate of a directly elected leader.

These models are unlikely to suit more complex deals, where the White Paper makes it clear that counties are expected to work with adjacent unitary councils as part of a sensible economic geography. In this case the mayoral combined authority remains the favoured model. Non-mayoral statutory boards, such as the Economic Prosperity Board (EPB), may come back onto the table where a county mayor is not likely to gain support, however the viability of this option remains to be seen.

The choice of governance model remains a crucial decision on two fronts (i) the short term acceptance of a proposal to government and (ii) the successful delivery of benefits to the community in the medium to long term. As always, the devil is likely to be in the detail. Failure to establish sound and practical governance early on the process could lead to problems later down the line, as some existing mayoral combined authorities have found.

Making strategic choices

In the wake of the White Paper's publication communities face a range of strategic and tactical choices. Some of these choices will be determined by the strength of local collaboration. Whitehall may decide others. The most important choice, however, sits solely with local authorities.

The government has outlined its vision - four key themes underpinned by 12 missions and six capitals.

Councils can now choose how they respond.

As one commentator questioned, do councils fall into the traditional response of bending what they’ve always done to fit another centrally-set framework. Or, do they take the opportunity to explore how service delivery (internal and external) can be fundamentally realigned to identify and address the opportunities presented by Levelling up.

Some places are well ahead of the curve in developing investment and service priorities based on the relationship between resources (inputs) and the difference this makes to the quality of life for residents (outputs). But this requires a considered shift away from the traditional focus on inputs to focus on what actions will actually move the dial. Using an implementation framework (such as the one below) can help local authorities unpick the building blocks of change and understand what will enable delivery.

There's no shying away from the fact that fundamental transformation will be a crucial requirement if places genuinely want to address economic, social, and health inequality issues.

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Negotiating the right deal

The White Paper clearly states that “devolution deals will be tailored to each area, with not every area necessarily having the same power”. If local authorities are to secure the powers and investment they need to genuinely make a difference in their place then negotiating the right deal will be critical. Based on our experience of deal making through the city deal and other processes we have identified eight principles that will help underpin productive negotiation:

Deal making is a two-way process

It's not just about the ‘ask’ of central government. Local authorities need to be able to demonstrate the benefits they will deliver in return for power, they need to show a willingness to take on risk.

Be clear on your boundaries

Geography, governance, accountability, risk, and reward will all be heavily scrutinised. Local authorities need to be clear on each of these before negotiations begin otherwise they will quickly fall apart.

Ensure stakeholders are aligned and managed

This removes the risk of undermining the deal. Negative voices expressing uncertainty and concerns will create nervousness which at best could delay decision making and at worse draw it to a halt.

Discussions should be both political and technical

Deals need to cover both principles and details. Local authorities need to be prepared for both.  Discussions and agreements between politicians and local leaders need to be quickly supported by technical analysis and reports that can be agreed by civil servants and local authority officers.

Understand the process

Be clear from the outset, what information is required at each stage, as well as timing and approval processes. This will prevent surprises and will ensure that the necessary information is available as required. It will also help in managing expectations.

Utilise regular meetings

To promote understanding and secure key decisions. Use these meetings to help politicians and civil servants to really understand your place, the mechanics of your deal and the difference it will make. 

For more information on how local authorities can respond to the government's plans to simplify devolution, get in touch with Rob Turner. 

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