Scrutiny, governance and “levelling up”
Perhaps surprisingly, the Prime Minister’s speech on “levelling up” last week provided less, rather than more, certainty about what the Government flagpole policy agenda actually means for local councils and the communities they serve. A helpful intervention from Robert Jenrick served to anchor some of the changes in the context of the devolution agenda, but it still feels like we will have to wait until the autumn for the definitive picture.
The fog is, however, beginning to part, and last week’s debate does allow us to make some predictions with a greater degree of confidence – although it doesn’t dispel some of the concerns we have about Government policy in this area. We can also think about the Government’s devolution agenda might demand in terms of governance and accountability.
Firstly, Government sees devolution deals spreading beyond metropolitan areas. That was something we always knew but it’s been explicitly confirmed that Government wants to see proposals from county areas. It’s too early to say but it’s not impossible that this will involve reorganisation. Government may not explicitly encourage county proposals to have local government restructures as part of the offer – but some bidding authorities may take the opportunity, and may seek to dust off some of the plans they had under development last summer. We can perhaps expect a rocky autumn of county/district arguments ahead.
Secondly, Government’s approach still seems to be similar to the “deal-making” model used in 2016-17 – which we critiqued as being potentially opaque. This model places all the cards in Government’s hands, and it’s possible that once again “deals” will look more like funded delivery agreements than grants of new, expansive powers. We do know, however, that these agreements will bring with them some flexibility – and that councils will find them attractive. So we can expect a new flurry of dealmaking once the White Paper is published.
Thirdly, and most importantly from our perspective, governance appears to be up for grabs. The Government has loosened its adherence to what was once a fundamental principle – that devolution had to come with a Mayor. That no longer appears to be the case. Government is explicitly looking for strong governance proposals – and that involves a mix of agile, strong decision-making with vigorous scrutiny to hold that decision-making to account.
The next step is to wait for the White Paper. But in advance of that, we know that many areas will be – quietly, and perhaps not so quietly – drawing together plans for bids, to be first to get those plans on the Secretary of State’s desk. We’re keen to learn about where planning is underway – because we think, allied with our third point, that we can share our wealth of experience and expertise to help councils developing bids to design robust and credible governance arrangements which can present viable alternatives where local support for a Mayor doesn’t exist.