Getting the sequence right
This is the fifth in a series of blogs being produced by CfGS as part of the support work we are carrying out over 2015/16 on devolution. A report setting out our findings and recommendations in full will be published shortly.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Devolution reported last week. Its Chair, Lord Kerslake (he is our Chair as well) described the process of English devolution so far as “piecemeal and incoherent”.
I’m going to use this blogpost as an opportunity to play devil’s advocate, and ask whether something being piecemeal and incoherent is necessarily always a bad thing.
English devolution was always planned to be piecemeal. Government stated at the outset that it did not wish to pursue a national scheme, where it wielded a cookie-cutter to carefully carve up areas and pursue what we might call a “national settlement” with a cohort of new combined authorities. Instead, devolution has been about areas self-organising and submitting bids to central government. Certain areas have come forward more quickly than others. Some have even done deals, to return later for another one.
The charge of a lack of coherency is, however, a bit more difficult to shake off. The Government’s argument is that all deals are bespoke in nature. Each negotiation process is different. There isn’t a “devolution framework” (other than the framework put in place by the Devolution Act, such as it is) defining how those negotiations will proceed. Seen this way, incoherence becomes the essence of localism. A national muddle, where different areas are jostling for different powers in different ways, acts as proof that this is a real process, where real powers are being debated and devolved, not a national and prescriptive system run from Whitehall.
If this sounds like an argument too far, it probably is. There are two reasons why this national incoherence (asymmetry, if you prefer your terms a little more studiously neutral) is a real problem. Both have to do with “sequencing” – the order in which devolution deals are designed, discussed, agreed and implemented.
Sequencing is really important. With any complex project things have to happen in the correct order. So, before the deal can happen, an area must have a clearly defined geography and a strong sense of its “ask”. But sequencing is also complicated, and when things happen in the wrong order, the results can be tricky. Think about current events in East Anglia, where Government has tried to reopen the debate on geography not once but twice, by expanding the scope of devolution first beyond Suffolk to Norfolk, and beyond Norfolk to Cambridgeshire. It’s possible there will be a third expansion, to north Essex.
The first big problem is that a lack of coherence is disastrous for sequencing. Where no-one knows what order to expect different things to happen (and where negotiations, in some areas, seem to be following on from deals, rather than preceding them), no-one trying to exert scrutiny of the process can have a hope in discerning how is responsible for what, and where, and who is responsible for making decisions.
The second big problem is the question “incoherence for whom?”. Looking at this from a local government perspective, things looks messy and unpredictable. From the perspective of Government, however, things must be different. The Treasury and DCLG hold all the cards. They know how much power they are happy to relinquish and the fiscal freedoms, and funding, they will offer to make it work. They know how they wish to conduct negotiations. It would be surprising if there weren’t a Government crib-sheet for the negotiation process (while local councils are prohibited from revealing anything about the process to anyone else). This gulf in understanding and information is bad news for governance and accountability, and bad news for coherence, as local areas must effectively jump to Government’s tune.
Transparency over sequencing is one of the critical elements in getting devolution – and devolution governance – right. Good and clear sequencing will allow meaningful public and councillors involvement to be planned in at the outset. But persuading Government of the rectitude of this argument will be difficult.
If you are interested and excited by the idea of effective sequencing there are two things to bear in mind about it. Firstly, it was brought to my attention by Sue Goss, a consultant for OPM who has been working for us on this work. It helped me to crystallise a range of hitherto fairly inchoate thoughts that I had been having about this issue. Secondly, you’re in luck because our final report – out shortly – uses sequencing as the structure for its arguments.