If the government wants local government to take local leadership and deliver the new ‘city deals’, it will need the tools and resources to do the job
The government’s intention to devolve more powers and, it is to be hoped, resources to cities and – in some cases – city regions is very much welcome.
Local determination for a variety of policy, investment and operational decisions, which are currently taken in Whitehall, should lead to better decisions and better outcomes. It should also lead to a more ‘joined up’ approach to public services and public investment. And as ‘Total Place’ and other initiatives have shown, it can result in a more efficient and effective use of resources.
Through its leadership role and by having responsibility for the devolved authority and resources, local government can ensure greater local accountability for both the stewardship of these resources and the outcomes achieved.
However, this requires the new ‘city deals’ to be explicit about the role and responsibilities of local government (including directly elected mayors), and for these be understood and accepted by the wider public sector, both locally and nationally. Unfortunately, it is hard to see how this is going to be delivered given the government’s policies for services such as the NHS and schools, and given the cultures of centralist departments such as the Department for Work and Pensions.
To be truly impactful, this agenda requires significant and meaningful devolution including some powers to vary national policy. Question: will DWP, Department of Health and other Whitehall departments agree to this? How will city councils work with an elected police and crime commissioner, clinical commissioning groups and autonomous academies and free schools given that is very unlikely that the government will give them new powers? The lack of coterminosity between city council and police boundaries compounds the challenges.
If the government truly wants local government to take local leadership and deliver, then local government needs to be given both the tools and the resources to do the job.
Where it does not have these in the form of statutory powers, local government will have to demonstrate its ability to influence, persuade, negotiate, leverage and broker deals with others. In other words, it will have to use its democratic mandate to establish its right and role to be the principal and recognised place shaper for its locality.
Actually, I believe that much can be achieved without having direct powers to control the decisions and actions of others – but there are limits to how much can be achieved without specific authority to act and direct others. Therefore, council leaders and elected mayors really do need to be clear about what they are signing up to and for what they are prepared to be accountable.
City councils such as Manchester and the Greater Manchester Authority in particular but also many others have demonstrated what they can achieve in terms of regeneration and economic development.
The principal driver for the government’s adoption of the ‘city deal’ agenda is the need to drive economic growth. Local government can facilitate such activity but to do so, it has to work with the local social and business sectors, schools, colleges and universities and Local Enterprise Partnerships. Local government will need control over investment funds like the Regional Growth Fund, training programmes and the Work Programme.
To be truly effective and relevant, the latter really should be controlled locally by city and other local authorities rather than national prime contractors. And it will be interesting to see how far the DWP is willing or able to transfer the Work Programme to local government – for without these measures, the ambition of this week’s announcements could be thwarted before the policy even gets close to implementation. I fervently hope that this will not be the case.
The upcoming arrangements must not be restricted to economic development, and infrastructure (both virtual and concrete) needs also to address wider social and sustainability agendas. Councils and their partners must have the ability and resources to fund prevention programmes to reduce future demand on services and to secure better outcomes for communities and individuals.
In turn this means that the devolution from Whitehall should not stop at the Town Hall. It needs to be extended into communities, and local authorities will have to work more closely with and transfer resources (and sometimes authority) to the local voluntary and community sector.
Local businesses, the local VCS, local social enterprises and the wider public sector have to be involved in collaborative arrangements designed to secure better outcomes and the effective use of resources. It is also the case that when considering the resources available in any locality, local authorities have to consider not only the public sector but also the business, social and voluntary sectors and above all the human capacity available in communities. There is a very specific need to work with those communities, local businesses, the VCS and others to build the sustainable local human capacity capable of addressing not only economic but also social objectives.
The government is offering a huge opportunity for local government – especially in the major cities and city regions. Local political leaders should grasp this firmly, and turn it to the benefit of their localities. However, in so doing, they will have to display bold political leadership to: shape their places; secure the right outcomes; and challenge central government to make more, not less resources available to them and their communities.
This is an exciting opportunity but one that could go horribly wrong if the rhetoric is not matched with meaningful devolution of power and adequate resources.
Meanwhile the rest of the country outside the major cities should not just be watching from the side lines. Rather, it should be developing powerful cases for their shire and unitary areas to have the same or similar opportunities. Devolution to local government should be universal.