Devolution and a sense of place

Posted on 02/02/2016 by Ed Hammond. Tags:

This blog is the second in a series we are writing as part of our support work, funded by the LGA, on English devolution

It was to say the least a bit of a surprise when DCLG announced, just before Christmas, that the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill would be amended to allow areas to bid for unitary status even if not all authorities in the area agreed. We’re not back to the bad old days of forced unitarisation (in England at least – Northern Ireland has just gone through its own reorganisation, and Wales is just about to embark on one) but it does give us pause to reflect on why “getting the geography right” is so important to devolution.

Boundaries are important to us. They give people a sense of identity and community – even if they are far less visible than they used to be. The borders between London’s patchwork of 32 boroughs, for example, is practically invisible on the ground to all but those obsessed by the minutiae of street furniture design (a category of person in which I regrettably belong). Boundaries have developed as a combination of history, some active design but mainly chance.

As a result it is inevitable that some of those boundaries no longer reflect the reality of how people currently live their lives. That combination of history, design and chance has left us with administrative areas with suit the convenience of decision-makers and bureaucrats but which do not necessarily reflect local people’s sense of place – or in some cases the opposite. Local government restructures have tapped into this visceral sense of pride in belonging, or disconnect from arbitrary boundaries. Look at the footage from 1974 of Herefordshire’s county councillors raising a black flag on the roof of their county hall immediately prior to their being subsumed into the (subsequenty abolished) super-county of “Hereford and Worcester” for an example of attachment to “place”. Ask a resident of Beckenham if they live in Kent or London for an example of where a common sense of “place” might not be felt quite so keenly.

And sense of place and belonging are both about a sense of accountability – the confidence that you have that people making decisions are doing so in your interests and the interests of the community in which you live.

The progress of devolution deals has allowed us to reflect on this, and to redesign some of those boundaries to reflect modern needs. Devolution deals have tended to focus on economic development, skills, business support and transport, and as such it is no surprise that opinion seems to have coalesced around the travel to work area as the “optimum” administrative grouping.

In the areas where we are going to be providing support, there have been public discussions and disagreements about the geography. In the Sheffield and South Yorkshire area, some of the districts in the north of the newly-rechristened North Midlands area may be seeking to get involved. In the Hampshire and Isle of Wight area, the existence of two LEPs (neither of which is coterminous with the area covered by the putative devolution deal) raises challenges about how easily those councils will be able to work together. In East Anglia, a devolution deal which started with Suffolk and its districts has now expanded to encompass Norfolk; while the Secretary of State is keen for Cambridgeshire to come in on these arrangements, they have recently decided against it..

All these challenges emphasise the difficulty of identifying and capitalising on a shared sense of place.

By providing assistance and support to these and other areas of England, we hope to provide a framework for a stronger sense of accountability to local people, and hence a stronger sense of place. In a couple of the areas where we are providing support, we will be helping local leaders and decision-makers to explore opportunities arising to devolve further – double devolution (or subsidiarity, as the technicians call it), with decisions being taken at the lowest appropriate level. This is about tying places together, linking sub-regional structures which might otherwise seem remote into day-to-day decision-making at a much more local level.

In Cornwall, we will be working in an area with an existing and strong sense of place, to explore how partnership working between councils and a range of other local organisations can help to deepen connections to local communities, and to ensure that partners share a common understanding of what local need is – and that they can be robustly held to account on this by local non-executive councillors.

In these, and the other areas where we will be providing support, a marker of the success of our work will be the development of a consensus around local priorities and local need – a sense of place to cover the area of a devolution deal. This sense of place will make governance and accountability easier – for non-executive councillors, it will feel more natural and easy to focus on strategic issues that concern the whole area, not just more parochial issues which might be unique to their own authority. For the public, it will promote more ownership and buy-in, and more interest in the critical decisions being made about economic development, transport, health, social care and whatever else might be devolved further down the line.

While the creation of a real sense of place for devo areas is not one of the outcomes we expect to deliver by the end of this work we can hopefully map out a route to a governance system that can help achieve it. It will we hope be a by-product of the practical help we are providing to get governance good enough to help combined authorities to make a difference to people’s lives.

Between the start of January and the end of March CfGS is working with five areas of England to support the development of robust and proportionate governance under devolution deals. The areas supported are Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Hampshire/Isle of Wight, Sheffield, and Norfolk and Suffolk. A report will be published in the spring summarising and explaining our work.

For more information please contact Ed Hammond, Director of Local Accountability, at or 020 7187 7369.

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.