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NextGov: Devolutionary road

Jonathan Werran, the chief executive of think-tank Localis, discusses what the next government should do to extend devolution.

There’s a whole policy world of difference between what the next government should do and what it most probably will do to drive the devolutionary road in the next parliament. Let’s assume that the desired end goal of devolution is simultaneously to achieve two goals – to both advance locally led economic development and socially improve the lives of communities and localities in a manner that is both inclusive and sustainable. And let’s also assume projections of a Labour supermajority will carry through to an inevitable and sizable Starmer-led government.

Every post-war government has tried and failed to solve the vampiric issue of low and uneven regional productivity. The Levelling Up experiment wasn’t our first national rodeo and it won’t be our last. As secretary of state, Angela Rayner may well lead us on the Powering Up agenda as the Take Back Control agenda passes through parliament. What’s for sure is that there will be an updated political lexicon to cover the repainted policy bandwagon which we will inevitably trail behind as camp followers.

From a pure localist perspective, the next government should finish the job of giving all areas of England a strong devolution deal by the end of the next parliament, fill in the gaps in the map and harvest the harder to reach high-hanging fruit. Why have 85% when you can have it all?

Where we have strategic devolution, please let us make the trailblazer settlements in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands deliver concrete results in efficiently allocating and dispensing funds from central government departments to maximum local impact. And while learning from the poster boys of regional devolution, let’s extend the trailblazer deals across the established mayoral combined authorities and deepen these existing devolution deals.

The reforming of combined authority governance arrangements to unblock decision-making will assume great importance. The proposed constitutional recalibration, in which combined authority mayors will join the prime minister and devolved administrations in the Councils of the Nations and Regions, will be one to watch.

And to hold ministerial feet to the fire, the new government should constantly review the devolution settlement in England to ensure it is working for the whole country.

So much for devolution, but how to make it stick sub-regionally and locally?

What has been notably missing from the party manifestos, and in Labour’s power play on combined authorities as the chosen vessels of devolution, is any mention of the role of local government in providing the connecting tissue to these devolutionary aims. This role in binding this agenda at the level of place must be recognised.

Successful devolution will depend on restoring the stability of local government as a sector and rebuilding the atrophied capacity of the local state. This isn’t glamorous.

But doing the basics of neighbourhood services brilliantly and reinvigorating placemaking will provide the necessary platform for any later ‘moonshots’ of radical whole place transformation.

And as guardrails for sustainable high quality local public service delivery, the new government should overhaul how we independently evaluate council performance to focus on long-term outcomes and support councils to continuously improve.

Necessary stability will require staunching the immediate wounds of local public finances before then providing the type of long-term settlements that will give certainty of planning for local growth. And to be progressive, the new settlement will have to be one that switches the current reactive funding model towards proactive and preventative service provision, and one that encourages collaborative partnership working across the public and private sector.

And to fund the significant investment in infrastructure our regions need to play catch up with their international peers. Levelling Up was holed below the waterline by Treasury intransigence and the fact the money had dried up post pandemic.

To be successful, future devolution will require an overhaul in how we efficiently allocate capital to our historically under-resourced regions. Government borrowing may be constrained in the next political cycle but there is no lack of capital in the UK economy. We must look to both private and institutional investment and remake the case for the local state retaining a greater share of the growth generated within its bounds.

Far more institutional capital needs to flow into real economy investment projects across the country - for affordable housing energy and climate adaptation to transport and workforce upskilling. Well-directed private investment delivered in partnership with local government has the potential to uplift local economies, grow tax bases and help to alleviate the overall service pressure on councils.

Success or failure in driving down devolutionary road in the next parliament will depend upon the firm platform of an empowered and stable local state. Like a Russian doll, this will fit new statutory local growth plans within regional combined authority ambitions within overarching national missions and industrial strategy. Fixing the local is fixing the total.


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