Launching our campaign on devolution
“Getting the governance right” for devolution isn’t about bureaucracy, or a sideshow distracting us from the real prize of more power for combined authorities. Good governance is in fact central to making those arrangements work.
The next nine months will see us playing an active part in providing support to combined authorities in England as they start to build up their governance arrangements to effectively deliver the devolution deals they have made, and are making. We’re kicking this off with the launch of our publication “Devo Why? Devo How?“, and the launch of our wider campaign on devolution and governance.
The first thing we want to tackle is the “why” of devolution. It is easy to assume that all areas will be shopping for the same kinds of powers – over health, transport, economic development – and that they will be using those powers in similar ways. But the fact that devolution negotiations are bilateral – each area negotiating separately with Government – belies this assumption. Devolution is asymmetric, and as such it requires a different justification in every area. We’re not sure that those justifications have always been obvious in the rush for more powers. Teasing out these justifications, and subjecting them to constructive scrutiny, is a vital role for local councillors, and one that we plan to support.
The second thing to tackle is the “how”. How will governance be made to work under devolved arrangements which are likely to be different everywhere, but which are always likely to need to be flexible, subject to change, and to involve a wide range of partners? We find that complexity is almost always opaque which in turn can breed suspicion – suspicion that decisions are being made in private or not being made in everyone’s interest. Decision-makers often have the best of intentions – tied to the principles of representative democracy, and ensuring that loud voices and sectional interests do not sway deliberative and thoughtful decision-making processes. This sort of commitment to fairness and reflection often doesn’t last for long, however, and there is a risk that local people and groups become aliented from the process – this is not in anyone’s interest.
The existence of executive Mayors in every area is not a sufficient guarantor of democracy and openness here. The existence of overview and scrutiny committees is, on its own, not enough either.
As ever, the most important thing is culture. A culture of independent scrutiny, a culture of thought and reflection, and a culture and dialogue and openness. These facets of good governance, and good decision-making, can help councils work together to deliver services in a more relevant, targeted and transparent way than central Government ever could.
As devolution develops, so will the governance arrangements within which it sits. As such, national specification is unlikely to work. We think that an approach led by local determination is important – but that combined authorities need to be nudged to reflect on governance and why it is important. We’re planning to work with a number of areas over the course of the rest of the year, to see how good governance can be recognised as both vital and relevant to delivering promises made in devolution deals.