Long read: the English Devolution Accountability Framework: first thoughts

Posted on 17/03/2023 by Ed Hammond.

This post represents a “first look” at the just-published of the English Devolution Accountability Framework – the early thoughts of our Acting Chief Executive rather than, for the moment, the settled view of the Centre on these issues. We publish this as a way of contributing to the ongoing discussion on these issues and look forward to the products of that discussion coalescing into the next iteration of the Framework later this year.

It’s been long coming – the publication of this Accountability Framework has been anticipated since the issuing of the Levelling Up White Paper. Today (16 March) it’s been published.

It follows yesterday’s publication of two “trailblazer” deals with GM and WM. These deals received quite a lot of high profile press (well, Jen Williams did a piece in the FT – and Stephen Bush did an interesting thread on Twitter ). The reporting alighted on the enhanced roles for MPs in scrutiny of CAs – which I cover in more detail below.  

The GM and WM deals are lent further heft, meaning and nuance by this Accountability Framework.

But what are the Framework’s key themes and components, and why are they just as important to colleagues in local authorities as they are to those in combined authorities?

Why a framework?

The first thing to address is why Government has produced this framework. Back in the first round of devolution (between 2015 and 2017) it was the bespoke, individual nature of the dealmaking process that was seen as its greatest strength. Flexibility was the watchword – Government in particular was keen not to constrain its approach.

But this did make the process opaque to outsiders – including those in local government trying to engage in the dealmaking process. We noted this complexity in our report, “Cards on the table: tips and tricks for getting in on the action of devolution” (2016) – which at page 9 sets out in a rather detailed diagram the nature of the dealmaking process as it then existed. Where Government’s position – its red lines, its motivations and its expectations around accountability, governance and reporting – was arguably unclear, negotiation felt one-sided.

The experiences of MCAs in their first few years of operation perhaps led to a view that more structure and process would be a good thing. The early years belied the assumption by some that combined authorities would be light-touch, enabling organisations. As they have taken on more powers and responsibilities, so the expectations around governance have – rightly increased. This corresponding increase in powers and expectations has followed a formula. The framework finally places that formula on a transparent, consistent footing. In that sense, its arrival is welcome.

Government has described the Framework as being a “safeguard against unethical behaviour, inadequate performance and poor value for money for the taxpayer”. The framework does rather more than this though, as this passage suggests:

“The English Devolution Accountability Framework should be seen as part of the broader Local Government Accountability Framework. Much of the English Devolution Accountability Framework highlights existing policies, processes, and mechanisms within the Local Government Accountability Framework and confirms how these should be understood and adopted in the context of implementing devolution deals. Where it proposes to go further, for example in the creation of the Scrutiny Protocol, these additional policies, processes and mechanisms should be understood to be especially applicable in the case of devolution deal implementation but may be adopted more widely where local authorities consider this appropriate […]

All of the processes and mechanisms detailed in this document apply to all existing and future English institutions with devolved functions, unless stated otherwise.”

It is, then, the first concrete part of the wider accountability arrangements that Government is putting in place for the sector – soon to be joined by Oflog and, arguably, a new approach to oversight and intervention in cases of council failure. It forms part of a reframing and shifting of the central-local relationship which will affect relations between Government, CAs, and their constituent authorities. It will also impact on councils which may now see themselves on a conveyor belt to CA status – because there seems no doubt that Government, through this and associated measures, is creating a landscape where, to take steps to develop and grow local economies, to tackle needs around housing, education and a whole other host of public service priorities, “doing a devo deal” will be seen as the only game in town.  

So much for the objective. What about the detail?

A reminder of the 3 “levels” of devolution

But wait – before we delve into the detail of the framework itself it probably serves us to recall the different levels of devolution in the framework as originally presented in the Levelling Up White Paper. The three “levels” of devolution are set out in a table on p140; they are:

Level 1: Local authorities working together across a FEA or whole county area, eg through a joint committee

Level 2: A single institution or County Council without a DEM, across a FEA or whole county area

Level 3: A single institution or County Council with a DEM across a FEA or whole county area

Moving up the levels – from 1 to 2, 2 to 3 – means more powers and responsibilities, more freedoms and – you’d hope – more funding. But moving up through the levels requires the demonstration of strong local accountability systems, and the Accountability Framework articulates exactly what those expectations now are. 

Accountability, therefore, takes centre stage.

“3 key forms of accountability”

The framework highlights three key forms of accountability:

  • Local scrutiny and checks and balances;
  • Accountability to the public;
  • Accountability to the UK government.

Providing appropriate (local) scrutiny: The Scrutiny Protocol

Over the course of this year Government will be developing something it calls the “Scrutiny Protocol”. We are delighted that Government has specifically stated in the framework that it plans to work with us, alongside MCAs, the GLA and emerging devolved areas, in developing this protocol.

The Protocol is aimed at delivering a key aim – strengthened, vigorous scrutiny that meets the needs of burgeoning powers and responsibilities in devolved institutions. The framework says,

“It is crucial that local scrutiny of institutions with devolved powers sets new standards for holding their institutions to account for delivery, as well as playing a critical role in policy and strategy development”.

The Protocol will define the relationship between the Mayor, the institution and its scrutiny and audit functions. The framework sets out some bold aims for the development of scrutiny – aims that the Protocol will push forward:

  • “The Scrutiny Protocol will focus on ensuring that each institution has a sustained culture of scrutiny…”
  • “… Membership on committees should be prized and competed for. Retention of members for several years should be common…”
  • “… Members should be able to devote the time to the role…”
  • “… The committees should have the profile and cachet to ensure that their findings are brought to the attention of the public wherever necessary…”

Scrutiny committees will also, it appears, be central to MCAs’ approach to public engagement, and engagement with other key stakeholders – including the new “Business Boards” expected to replace LEPs in CA (and other) areas. Finally, there is a natural cut-across to the functions of Police (Fire) and Crime Panels, on which Government issued fresh guidance in January.

Current scrutineers at local and combined authority level could be forgiven for forming a wry smile at this point. This would all be lovely; but how do we get there? It isn’t a secret that scrutiny in many combined authority areas has struggled to make a concerted impact – noted by a House of Commons report on progress on English devolution in 2020. Workaday problems like quoracy continue to present real limitations.

We have, however, been working with members and officers in a number of combined authority areas in recent years and think we have a toolbox of ideas which could, with a following wind, get us to this position. Bringing scrutiny to the centre stage in this way helps a lot – the task now is to capitalise on that attention by bringing forward coherent, proportionate, realistic ideas for how scrutiny will work.

Furthermore, as suggested in our comments above about “moving through the levels”, the framework says:

“Successfully implementing the Protocol will be a key factor when determining eligibility for single funding settlements and deeper devolution deals.”

Tying the effectiveness of scrutiny in to the determination of where and whether further devolution will happen will, we think, concentrate minds.

We expect that much of the heavy lifting on the content of the Protocol will take place around the development of the new local accountability arrangements for the GMCA and WMCA “trailblazer” deals. Indeed, the WM deal specifically cites our recent work supporting a review of GM’s scrutiny arrangements, suggesting that the actions we identified through that exercise might provide the kernel of the approach set out in the Protocol. We will see. As plans develop, we are committed to sharing our thoughts on this in public – and to ensure that other key players, such as the Combined Authorities Governance Network, as well as scrutiny members themselves, are part of the conversation.

Will scrutiny committees develop into “proto-local PACs”?

We have recently published refreshed material on our arguments for the establishment of local Public Accounts Committees. The Labour Party have adopted as policy, in advance of confirmation in a putative General Election manifesto, the establishment of these new structures.

We had in mind that local PACs would be entirely separate bodies (although possibly hosted by an existing organisation) and that their focus would be on public spend across an area as a whole. Beefed up scrutiny arrangements are not quite the same thing, but they do point the way to a strengthening of accountability – and especially partnership accountability – which could eventually be used as a foundation on which to build a local PAC.

Committees of MPs

Not present in the Accountability Framework itself, but a component of the new WM and GM “trailblazer” deals, is the plan to establish committees of MPs to provide an additional form of scrutiny for those particular CAs.

We can perhaps expect that these will be component of future deals in other areas too. The fact is that the additional of local MPs to the accountability landscape is to be expected. Those of us who are localists will shift in our seats awkwardly at the idea of MPs, as well as Ministers, crawling over CA business – at first glance it feels disproportionate given the presence of scrutiny and audit committees at local level too.

In reality though, where money comes centrally, we have to accept a form of Parliamentary accountability. Already, local MPs have played a central role in the negotiation of devolution deals and in their oversight. Given that the two options for MP involvement in local scrutiny are to place MPs on combined authority scrutiny committees (in our view logistically and legally unworkable) or to separate some kind of separate “MP panel” as is suggested here, the latter is the better option.

The devil will be in the detail. These will be wholly novel bodies, and will need to work closely with CA scrutiny and audit committees. They will not be committees to which the usual “1972 Act” rules apply. They may, or may not, be Parliamentary Grand Committees. The CA will be involved in setting them up but which institution will “own” them? How will they be supported? The expectation is that they will meet 4 times a year; how will these meetings work?

And logistical complications don’t end there. When and where would they meet? If an “MP committee” for WM wants to meet in Birmingham or Solihull (say), those meetings would need to happen during recess or on a non-sitting Friday in order for Members to attend. More flexibility would exist if they were convened in Westminster – but then again, does that look and feel like devolution?

These bodies will be high profile – getting them right is important.

Accountability to the public

The overall visibility of CAs, and Mayors, has been a preoccupation for local and national government for some time. Figures like Andy Burnham, Andy Street, Ben Houchen and Tracy Brabin, while not perhaps household names on the national stage, have carved out a growing sense of recognition – but broader public understanding of their actual roles is still at a low level.

Government, in this part of the framework, is challenging existing (and new) CAs to speak up more about their roles and activities.

But, through the Office for Local Government (Oflog) it will also be setting and recording new outcome measures for public recording of CA effectiveness. A lot here remains to be seen – Oflog is only just being established, and its Chair is engaging within the sector as the organisation ramps up its activities. The question remains – what level of detail will these outcomes have? Will they reflect the key tenets of existing deals, suggesting a lighter touch approach, or will Oflog be working up a national framework for performance recording and reporting, mapping across local government too – something which looks rather more similar to the Audit Commission, abolished back in 2010? Plenty of people who have been in the sector for a while think the latter – I’m not sure that the position is so clear cut. I am fairly sure that Government, and Oflog, would recognise the folly of trying to put in place a complex, burdensome national performance framework, especially given that (even with the framework and the devolution deal “levels”) devolution in England still feels fairly flexible and bespoke.

The framework highlights the move to First Past The Post elections for directly elected mayors as something that will enhance the accountability of those individuals to the public. This is something that we can perhaps charitably describe as a moot point.

Accountability to government

The content of this part of the Accountability Framework is perhaps the least surprising – it represents a continuation (with strengthening) of existing arrangements for fiscal accountability. It covers investment funds, inspection and intervention, and other reporting arrangements.

Notably, Government is committing to “streamline” devolved funding – this will be welcome to those in the sector who have become frustrated with the “efficiencies, decision-making complexity and reporting burdens” which the Framework candidly admits arise from “the number of local funding pots and the strings attached to them”. The framework tentatively semi-commits to delivering a single funding settlement to both GM and WM. This form of simplification alone, applied in other areas, could serve to make moving up the devolution levels attractive, and could serve to refocus accountability onto the local scrutiny systems described in more detail earlier.

A final thought – governance in London

Finally – another thing, tucked away at paragraph 3.14 of the framework, is a commitment to

“review how current scrutiny and accountability arrangements in London are operating in practice, exploring […] how the Greater London Authority works and liaises with the London boroughs. This will be aimed at […] considering how current scrutiny arrangements may need to evolve over time.”

This of course would be the first time since 2000 that the governance framework for London government has been substantially reviewed (apart, perhaps, from the abolition of the London Development Agency).

We’d be very keen to see this work engage with the “London Futures” review carried out by the Centre for London, which attempted to “shape London’s future to 2050 and beyond”. London’s devolution framework is unique and London, as a city, faces unique opportunities and pressures that require a bespoke approach to governance too. London Futures provides a good primer for those who see governance as central to delivering on a coherent vision for the capital.

This blog-based writeup of a roundtable discussion carried out by the Centre in 2021 provides some useful context.

How this governance review is carried out, and what the outcome will be, will be very interesting indeed; we will watch with interest.

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.