Is devo dead?

Posted on 28/03/2017 by Ed Hammond.

Ed Hammond explores the future health of devolution and what it means for scrutiny.

Lord Porter, Chair of the Local Government Association, thinks devo is dead, and said as much at the District Councils’ Network conference a few weeks back. The Local Government Chronicle has declared it to be on life support. The signs are not looking good.

So what has happened?

Firstly – is it dead? The answer to this is probably (in typically policy-wonkish styke) – whose devo? Because there are two – devolution as central Government sees it, and devolution as local areas see it.

The central Government driven agenda probably is dead. That agenda is centred on “the deal” – the bringing together of local and central Government in a room to decide on a range of issues around which certain powers and services can be decentralised from Whitehall, with a bit of attached funding and the requirement to have a directly elected mayor. It relied on the political commitment of key figures at Westminster to make it happen. George Osborne was recognised as the driving force, but Greg Clark’s presence at Department for Communities and Local Government also pushed the agenda forward. It is fair to say that neither of their successors has the same personal commitment to this work.

Devolution as local areas see it, however, is a different matter. For some in local government, devolution is part of a wider drive towards public service reform – something that will put structures and frameworks in place to allow councils and their partners to work more effectively in the future. This means that there may be a locally-driven future for combined authorities and Mayors which is independent of Government.

A useful analogy might be the trials and tribulations the sector underwent when the Next Big Thing was “Total Place” – terrifyingly, now nearly ten years ago.

Total Place was a hugely ambitious Government-driven initiative, which was targeted at delivering significant savings through transforming the way that local authorities and their partners worked together. It got to the pilot phase, before it fizzled out under the Coalition Government. But its themes remained (driven by need, financial and demand related), and local authorities continued to transform and redesign their services – perhaps not always in perfect concert with local partners, but enough to see the thread between that programme and a lot of the local government innovation that happens in 2017.

Might things go the same way for devolution? Might we stop talking about “devolution”, about the dealmaking process and about Government’s role, and start thinking and talking more about thematically-connected plans and structures, organised and delivered at local level. That depends on the Government, and the extent to which there is a local government taste for doing strategic things at combined authority level. Could this be the way to deliver benefits independent of the (nugatory) Government funding available through devolution?

If this does happen, there will naturally be a continuing role for scrutiny. Crucially, scrutiny will need to continue to shine a public spotlight as and when combined authorities, councils and partners decide they need to do more together. In an increasingly jumbled landscape where decision-making could potentially be drawn up and away to organisations more remote from local people, scrutiny will have a stronger role. If this goes hand-in-hand with unitarisation – particularly unitarisation at the county scale – such pressures for robust scrutiny will become even stronger.

“Devolution” might be dead, but in the next few months and years we might be talking more about “agglomeration” (of services, issues, ideas) at a partnership level and in sub-regional structures like combined authorities, and an “atomisation” (of accountability). Characterised by partnership working, it could mean that nobody is quite sure who is responsible for services any more when they are running normally, when we need to, redesign them, and when they fail.

It’s perhaps too early to say yet whether this will come to pass, and whether devolution really is “Total Place redux”. But scrutiny needs to get used to the reality that, increasingly, its work will need to look far beyond the confines of the town hall and civic centre.

What’s your view on the future of devolution and scrutiny? How do you think scrutiny’s role might change as councils agglomerate? Does your authority need support with its devolution governance? Let us know by emailing or join the conversation @cfpscrutiny


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.