Proactive local authorities are setting their own agenda for devolution, showing there's no need to wait for the government's White Paper to push ahead.
It's no surprise that most local authorities are sitting tight, waiting to be handed the chance to bid for more powers, responsibilities and funding. Central government has promised radical devolution, as part of its plan to 'level-up' the left-behind places across the country.
But the long-awaited devolution White Paper has been delayed a number of times, and in the meantime a string of local authorities are proving that a shift in central-local relations is already possible. They are signalling that in the current climate, there is an opportunity for local government to provide a proactive response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to drive economic renewal.
This has been demonstrated by, among others, West Midlands Combined Authority, Sheffield City Region, the county and district councils in Derbyshire, Cornwall Council, the West of England Combined Authority and the councils supporting the Western Gateway and the LEPs and councils in the East Midlands. In some instances, the organisations concerned are building on established devolution arrangements, others are making their case for the first time.
“If we do not act decisively now we will likely miss the once in a generation opportunities before us and may have no say in what happens to our county and how it is governed.”
The West Midlands Combined Authority has successfully secured £150m of government funding to reboot the region's economy, using analysis of the potential benefits to the economy from local initiatives to boost skills, digital connectivity, infrastructure and more.
The Sheffield City Region has agreed a "landmark devolution deal" equipping local leaders with the tools and resources to build back better from the pandemic. The deal followed a public consultation which found overwhelming support for local decision makers and devolution of powers.
The Derbyshire councils are developing and implementing a new model of local government, Vision Derbyshire, to enable the country and district councils to speak with one voice, agree collective priorities and collaborate to target the delivery of better outcomes for local residents. The councils say they are acting decisively now, because as local authorities they need to be "masters of our own future for the good of the residents and communities we work alongside".
Cornwall Council was the first council serving a predominantly rural area to sign a devolution deal with the central government in 2015 and is now a leading example of how to take control of issues such as decarbonising the local economy. It is considering the potential of further interventions to enhance the local economy, skills and its delivery in relation to Net Zero.
The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) has submitted a bid to the Government for a Great Western Freeport. Based around the port of Bristol, the WECA claims it would create up to 50,000 new jobs and add £6bn to the UK economy.
In the East Midlands, the LEPs, county councils in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, as well the city councils in Derby, Nottingham and Leicester and a number of other partners have submitted a bid for an East Midlands freeport, which they say could create 60,000 new jobs.
The success of these local authorities in seizing the agenda at this time of national crisis indicates that there is not only an opportunity to push ahead - a proactive stance is proving welcome. As research for Sheffield City Region found, almost 90% of the public (590 out of 675 respondents) said they supported the principle of devolution of further powers from Westminster. There was also strong support for providing local decision makers with the tools needed to solve local problems.
This is echoed more broadly by PwC's recent nationwide research, which found that only 8% of the public trusted that the central government "listens to people like me" or "takes my needs into account when making decisions". Local government and community groups fared better with 23% and 29%, respectively, agreeing that local government "represents people like me", and 21% and 22%, respectively, agreeing that it "takes my needs into account".
During the COVID-19 pandemic, interaction between local and central government has stepped up in a way that is already influencing future policy. Central government has had to rely heavily on local authorities throughout the pandemic. This has put local government at the forefront of delivering social and economic recovery to their areas and adds weight to the argument that devolution is key to future economic success. It's also worth noting that in January, the communities secretary said that local authorities "should be in the driving seat" in delivering the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and the £4bn levelling up fund - both intended to replace current EU funding.
Local authorities have proved that not only are they able to accelerate their thinking right now, but such moves could be welcomed by the central government and the public alike. There is no need to wait for the devolution white paper, there is an opportunity for areas with bold ambitions, and plans, to take control of the agenda.
|Quality & affordability of housing||21%||19%||39%||8%|
|A vibrant high street or town centre||8%||9%||37%||25%|
|Local public services and facilities||7%||10%||59%||7%|
|Quality of healthcare||40%||26%||24%||6%|
|Quality of education||27%||26%||38%||6%|