A devo update: reflections on research from CURDS and NAVCA

Posted on 31/05/2016 by Ed Hammond. Tags:

May seems to be the month for publishing major reports on devolution. There is our own, launched recently (http://cfps.org.uk/cards-on-the-table-devolution/), there is the imminent paper from Phil Swann of Shared Intelligence, going down into the legal detail of the establishment and operation of combined authority – and in the last week, two major and thought-provoking pieces of work from CURDS and NAVCA.

CURDS is the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies at the University of Newcastle. NAVCA is the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action. Both reports reflect on big issues from different perspectives – this, as well as the fact they were published only a few days apart, justifies looking at them together. The CURDS report (perhaps pointedly, it uses the word “decentralisation” rather than “devolution” in its title) looks at some of the broad principles around devolution. The NAVCA paper looks in more detail at community involvement.

Both reports look in depth at issues around the rationale for devolution, geographical uncertainties and the transparency, or otherwise, of the deal-making process itself – all issues critical to good governance, and all things on which we have previously commented. So let’s cut to the chase and ask – what do they have to say about accountability and scrutiny in particular?

Quite a lot, in fact. While both look at the broad context for devolution (or decentralisation), accountability is clearly a preoccupation. This does reflect how far we have come in the last year or so. Until recently, conversations about governance began and ended with a debate about Mayors – now, things are becoming more nuanced.

The CURDS report calls for a “roadmap” to articulate the way that decentralisation is being carried out (happily, we agree – we set out the arguments for a “sequence” in devolution deals here). Like us, CURDS sees the process as having been unclear, in terms of its rationale – unlike us, they see this lack of clarity, this messiness, this breadth of ambition with its uncertainty of object, as a big problem.

NAVCA, on the other hand, see the overarching rationale for devolution as being quite clear – it is about economic growth. Moreover, they see this rationale as too narrow. They think that it needs to be opened out to encompass the prioritisation of social inclusion, and the creation of local economies that serve the interests of the people living in them.

With very different views of the rationale and meaning of devolution (or decentralisation), it’s unsurprising that their respective prescriptions for governance also differ.

CURDS thinks that much of the answer lies with strengthened national accountability. The establishment of a Decentralisation Commission and the bolstering of accountability through Parliament is part of their solution. They suggest Regional Select Committees and Ministers for the Regions – proposals which will be familiar to those who closely followed the debate around the former Labour Government’s “sub-national review” in 2009. Local mechanisms for community accountability are mentioned, but are sketched out little beyond the exhortation that they must be “new, innovative and experimental forms that are more open, deliberative and inclusive rather than closed, technocratic and exclusive”. It is assumed that the Decentralisation Commission would have some role in guiding on the appropriateness or otherwise of any proposed method.

For NAVCA, accountability is about localism – the community as a source of legitimacy, and of scrutiny, for the new arrangements. The public are central here: bottom-up neighbourhood arrangements, and even the possibility of local constitutional conventions, are mentioned. There is little discussion of national systems.

Why does a similar challenge provoke people to identify dramatically different solutions? In part, it may be something to do with people’s view of what devolution actually is. The CURDS description of the process as “decentralisation” is more than a semantic one – that mindset influences what governance and accountability systems you think are appropriate. If you think that this process is one of decentralisation, where Government retains significant power and responsibility over decision-making, then of course a retention and strengthening of national governance systems is logical. If you buy the Government line that this is a genuine devolution of responsibility – and it is a line eagerly adopted by the local government sector too, which sees the process as a crucial opportunity to take back power and control – your governance solution will look and feel much more local.

Who’s right? At the moment, it’s too early to say. Instinctively, I fall on the localist side – I think that accountability and governance must therefore be locally-led. I feel uneasy at the thought of further national accountability – even if it’s driven by Parliament and an apparently independent “commission”, with all the safeguards that presumably involves. But the significant uncertainty around Government’s own rationale for devolution presents a risk and a challenge, as well as an opportunity, for local government. It’s an opportunity because this uncertainty provides local government with considerable freedom to stake its own claim to whatever rationale it sees in devolution – to suit its own citizens. That might be economic development (and we agree with NAVCA that for many, this is the driving force) but for most, that economic development and growth is about delivering the real prize – improved life chances for local people, safer and more prosperous communities, a public sector better able to meet its citizens’ needs. But Governments – and Ministers – change, and national objectives (such as they are) might do as well. How can we safeguard against those shifts in national policy placing devolution deals in jeopardy?

Strong, locally-led, governance here is a local safeguard. It is a way to keep local leaders as well as Government focused on what the real prize is for local people, and to resist the temptation to look up to Whitehall for validation. Ultimately, strong local governance is what makes devolution devolution, rather than decentralisation with added extras.

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.