Devolution: Approaches adopted by large or metropolitan cities will not necessarily suit county areas

How to make rural devolution work

Approaches adopted by large or metropolitan cities will not necessarily suit county areas, finds Brian Wilson.

Unlocking county devolution deals‘ is the subtitle of a report published in November 2015 by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

It is based on evidence from six county or unitary councils and one Local Enterprise Partnership in Cornwall, Derbyshire, Hampshire, Dorset, Nottinghamshire, Suffolk and Cheshire.

What a shame – and a missed opportunity – they did not also speak to some district councils.

The rationale for this research was that shire areas represent half of England’s population, 86% of its land mass and a large part of its economy. Since many need to address low wages, low productivity and skills mismatches, the case for devolving economic powers should be a strong one. Yet much of the Government’s initial focus has been on devolution to cities and city-regions.

The IPPR notes that public service reform has been just as big a driver as economic growth for many counties seeking devolution deals. Not least because of their older population profiles and the scale of the challenge they face to sustain health and social care services.

But the added complexities of shire areas may slow or stifle devolution ambitions. The mixed geographies of some mean that residents may associate themselves with different local identities. Local government structures may be two tier (or three tier if one includes the town and parish level).

One issue highlighted is that the conditions under which a directly elected mayor might work well do not always exist at county level. Those conditions include places with an obvious geographic centre, with a clear sense of identity and without duplicating existing democratic arrangements, as well as having public support. Conversely, elected mayors are least likely to be effective over geographies with various centres, multiple identities, already complex governance and little public appetite for them.

Hence, the report concludes that Government should be more open to alternative devolution models. The range of models could include:

* A county mayor and cabinet executive;
* A combined authority model (with or without a mayor);
* A public service board, bringing local authorities and others together; and
* A federated model, where adjoining combined authorities work together.

Another issue highlighted by this research concerns the negotiating process for devolution deals. Government has said it is open to receiving proposals and has no blueprint. However, the reality is proposals have been challenged by Government – some for covering too small a geographic area and some for being too ambitious in scope not to include an elected mayor. IPPR conclude that there are unwritten rules which need stating.

Those seeking devolution deals have also been frustrated by the significant variation in approach taken by Whitehall departments. Whilst there is praise for the Cities and Local Growth Unit in DCLG, there is criticism of other departments who insist on intensive bilateral negotiations. IPPR believe it would help if cross-departmental teams were deployed to negotiate devolutions deals in a more consistent manner.

The report authors do not want to dilute the current bottom-up approach to devolution, nor the ability to negotiate locally tailored deals. But they, nevertheless, think the process for negotiating and signing off devolution deals needs greater clarity. In short, being more systematic about the process shouldn’t compromise the ability to reach diverse outcomes.

A further issue is that where the aim is substantive public sector reform, for example to further integrate health and social care services, this requires some time to achieve. This sits uneasily with the rush in Whitehall to strike devolution deals as part of its economic growth agenda. IPPR recommend that Government permit more of a staged process, allowing public sector reform to occur over a longer time period.

Their report sees merit in devolution deals being struck for areas which are coterminous with LEP boundaries, where they are largely economic deals. Logical in one sense, but whether this would be practical in governance terms is questionable. The authors do acknowledge that some LEP boundaries need rationalising, which at the very least must be so where they overlap. They also conclude that the role and remit of LEPs would soon benefit from review.

All in all this report provides a useful stock take of the early devolution experience from shire areas. It doubtless reflects the fact that some are testing the boundaries of the policy, including what will be agreed by Whitehall without conceding a directly elected mayor. But this is not just gamesmanship. There are good reasons why shire areas need to find (and be allowed to find) localised approaches that suit their own circumstances.

This article was written by Brian Wilson whose consultancy, Brian Wilson Associates, can be contacted at brian@brianwilsonassociates.co.uk It provides policy and strategic research and advice. Areas of specialism include rural policy, public service delivery, local governance and community action. Brian also helps neighbourhood plan groups. He is a Director of Rural England CIC.

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