The Government has announced a ‘devolution revolution’, transferring powers and opportunities to local government through a series of ‘devolution deals’. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill gives statutory authority to deals and enables some of the specific reforms the Government wishes to make, such as introducing directly-elected mayors for combined authorities. This inquiry set out to examine the contents of the Bill and, in particular, whether Greater Manchester’s deal is a model for other areas, but its scope quickly widened to a review of the way in which devolution in England is proceeding.
We strongly support the principle of devolution. We welcome the fact that, at the start of this new Parliament, it occupies such a prominent position on the Government’s agenda. We acknowledge the personal contribution of Greg Clark, whose support and involvement since 2010 has been key in driving devolution. We expect to see this commitment continue, and for it to be shared by an increasing number of Departments, over the next four and a half years.
We are acutely aware that all deals are at an early stage and need time to bed in, and that many devolution bids are still to be negotiated. We therefore expect to review progress by the end of this Parliament and at regular intervals thereafter. Although it was not the focus of this inquiry, in line with our predecessors, we will continue to press for fiscal devolution: our next inquiry will look at the plans to allow local authorities to retain 100 per cent of business rates, and we will review the progress made on fiscal devolution.
We have identified various aspects of the current approach that we recommend are refined and improved now. Otherwise, the policy risks being rushed and appearing driven by a purely political timetable. We see a role for scrutiny by select committees of the secondary legislation enacting deals and the Government’s annual report on devolution, required by the Bill.
We have found a significant lack of public consultation and engagement at all stages in the devolution process. People are keen to be involved; our public session in Greater Manchester highlighted residents’ strong appetite to be included and consulted. The public should be engaged in the preparation of devolution proposals, insofar as possible during the negotiations and once the results of a deal have begun to make an impact, and communicated to throughout the process. This is particularly the case for health devolution where the systems in place are complex, changes are consequently more difficult to understand and the public’s response is likely to be more emotional.
We also believe that the Government’s approach to devolution in practice has lacked rigour as to process: there are no clear, measurable objectives for devolution, the timetable is rushed and efforts are not being made to inject openness or transparency into the deal negotiations. We suggest various ways in which proper process can be ensured; for example, with an agreed timetable for the negotiation and agreement of a deal.
Once deals are up and running, there will be a complex division of responsibility—between local authorities, the combined authority and, in some places, the directly-elected mayor—which will not necessarily be apparent to the public. Responsibility needs to be determined in a way that makes sense to the public, and consideration of these issues should be a significant part of the deal-making process with the division of responsibilities clearly spelled out. We received no clear explanation as to how accountability under health devolution will work and have recommended that the Government revisits this issue. There is a need for a clear articulation of how health devolution will work.
We strongly believe that areas should be able to acquire further devolved powers over time. Where an area has asked for particular devolved powers but was refused, those powers should be available to it if they are given to other similar areas at a later date.
Our ambition is that, by the end of this Parliament, the Government and local authorities will reach the position of ‘devolution by right’, with the Government having announced a package of powers that will be on offer to local government. This would be a starting point for even more ambitious and wide-ranging future deals and possibly a more comprehensive package of devolved measures agreed between Government and local government as a whole.
Prepared 29 January 2016