Combined authority consultation – what do *you* think of devolution?

Posted on 12/09/2016 by Ed Hammond. Tags: ,

Combined authorities – and areas aspiring to establish combined authorities in the near future – are taking the first steps towards introducing the concept of devolution to local residents, and inviting their views.

Devolution is complicated. It’s no Schleswig-Holstein Question, but its twists and turns still baffle even those of us whose jobs it is to keep track of what is going on. In this context, it might be too much to expect that the public will be able to get a handle on it.

In an ideal world we wouldn’t be in this space. The public would have been engaged in some form from the very start – helping to formulate the rationale and core content of a proposal to Government. The process would have been iterative – perhaps led by a citizen’s assembly – putting local people and their aspirations at the very heart of the process. A big local conversation (not a “consulation”) about the deal, once concluded with Government, would just have been the latest phase in this continuing exercise.

Unfortunately, that isn’t where we are. For most this is the first series of steps that are being taken to formally introduce the public to devolution and its outcomes. Several areas have done a valiant job of summarising the detail of the deal to allow people to engage with the issues constructively. Cambridgeshire have sought to produce and consult on such a summary (the consultation is going on right now, and you can respond to it here). There’s an “East Anglia Devo” website that seeks to explain the process in detail too, but through all of this public-faced material you can sense professionals grappling with the challenge of distilling a complex subject down to its key principles.

Under these circumstances, it’s unreasonable to expect that these consultations will do anything else than pique the interest and appetite of the public for more  and as such we should not expect them to be perfect exercises in engagement. This should be seen alongside the proposals that local areas are making in their “governance reviews” and “governance schemes”, the formal documents that areas by law must produce and submit to governance to demonstrate that decision-making systems will be robust and fit for purpose. Those documents are similarly tentative in their approach and, we think, rightly so. I would be worried if, at this stage, I was seeing complex and nuanced agreements coming from areas about exactly what governance arrangements would look like, when the ink on those deals which have already been done is barely dry.

It would be quite easy at this stage to berate local areas for not making strong commitments to a whole host of actions on governance as part of their governance reviews, and their proposed governance schemes. But what we have to remember is that those reviews and schemes present a framework for what follows, a skeleton into which more detail, and commitments, will be subsequently added.  

Similarly, it would be easy to criticise councils, and to say that it might be unreasonable to expect the public to express an informed view of the whole devolution experiment through the means of a traditional consultation exercise. But it’s better than doing nothing. These exercises, limited as they are at this stage, lay down a marker for future engagement with the public. They offer the first acknowledgment by councils that the public not only have a stake in this process, but, through a consultation, need to provide their approval albeit informally. It is imperfect and hopefully will be augmented by a more considered and meaningful approach to engaging the public in designing and delivering services under devolved powers but it’s a welcome start.

We will be producing more material on council consultation on devolution, and combined authorities’ planned approaches on governance in general, in the autumn.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.