As part of plans to rebalance the economy, Government is keen to devolve powers to regions. With regional devolution gathering pace – and deals signed in Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds – is this opening up greater opportunities for economic growth and regeneration and if so, where does rural fit? Jessica Sellick investigates.
Devolution for England was first proposed in 1912 by Winston Churchill (then MP for Dundee) as part of a debate on Home Rule for Ireland. The Redcliffe-Maud Report of 1969 proposed devolving power from central government to eight provinces in England. This was followed by the Royal Commission on the Constitution recommending the creation of eight English regional assemblies – to have an advisory rather than any legislative role.
Following this, Government Office Regions were established (in 1994) and Regional Development Agencies (in 1998). While much of this infrastructure and references to the word ‘regional’ were dismantled by the Coalition Government (from 2010), the ‘r’ word is appearing again as current Government agrees devolution deals with areas across the country.
These areas stretch from the Northern Powerhouse and Greater Manchester, to Cornwall, Sheffield City Region, Tees Valley, Merseyside and Greater Lincolnshire. At the end of May 2016, there were ten devolution deals in place covering 30% of England’s population.
In January 2016, the Communities and Local Government Select Committee published its inquiry into the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill and the approach being taken to pursuing devolution to cities and regions more generally.
The inquiry set out to examine the contents of the Bill, whether Greater Manchester’s deal could be a model for other areas, and the way in which devolution in England is proceeding. While the Committee is supportive of the principle of devolution, it found various aspects of the current approach needed to be refined and improved, “otherwise the policy risks being rushed and appearing driven by a purely political timetable”.
The Committee highlighted a lack of public consultation and engagement at all stages in the devolution process. The Committee also described devolution in practice as lacking rigour, “with no clear and measurable objectives and no efforts to inject openness and transparency into the deal negotiations”. By the end of this Parliament, the Committee has called for Local Authorities to reach a position of “devolution by right”, wherein devolved measures have been agreed between Government and local government as a whole.
The Committee made 40 recommendations and the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 received Royal Assent on 28 January 2016 and came into force in April 2016.
The Government responded to the Select Committee inquiry in May 2016. The Government believes no further scrutiny beyond the provisions already in the Orders of the Act is required. The Government further intends to lay an annual report before each House of Parliament setting out the status of devolution agreements.
The Government’s key aim through devolution remains to support local places to identify and achieve their own objectives – “an iterative and bottom up approach across functional economic areas”. The Government, therefore, does not share the Committee’s view that there should be assessment criteria to agree deals because all deals will vary depending on the asks from local areas.
Of particular interest to RSN members, the Select Committee suggested the Government has had an urban bias in its approach; focusing on cities rather than non-metropolitan two-tier areas. In response, Government heralded deals agreed with the West of England, East Anglia and Greater Lincolnshire as examples where substantial rural areas will benefit. Seeing devolution as a universal rather than urban agenda, Government believes that the onus should be on places to develop partnerships and proposals and then come forward to discuss these with them.
Yet the Select Committee indicated the need for an alternative model of governance for non-metropolitan areas; in particular identifying how having an elected mayor was perhaps better suited to urban areas. The Government, however, believes there is no discrimination between rural and urban areas in its devolution agenda and that the incorporation of an elected mayor is “a choice for local areas” (dependent upon the scope and scale of powers they are seeking).
For me, the Select Committee’s findings chime with the Independent Commission on Economic Growth and the Future of Public Services in Non-Metropolitan England. Set up by the Local Government Association and chaired by Sir John Peace, the Commission was tasked with finding ways to stimulate economic growth regionally.
Focusing on district, county and unitary council areas outside of major metropolitan cities, in its final report (March 2015) the Commission presented the case for these areas to be given the same opportunities for growth as their urban counterparts – with local authorities transforming from “dependents on a finite pot of central funding into entrepreneurial economic zones” (with Councils managing and growing their budgets through new revenue streams).
The Commission made a series of recommendations around giving local partners responsibility for skills, Foreign Direct Investment, planning, transport, broadband and housing.
What does the devolution of powers from the Government to local areas mean for rural England? I offer three points.
Firstly, cities appear to be in the lead when it comes to devolution – perhaps because the process has been designed with city regions in mind? The Core Cities devolution declaration calls for “a state that can rebalance reform and renew Britain. Only by working together nationally and locally in a different way can we transform the lives of millions and ensure our country can compete in an increasingly globalised and complex world. The groundwork has been done, the model tested. Now is the time for more radical action”.
The Core Cities Group, comprising local authorities covering ten urban areas, is seeking to put into practice ideas across functioning economic areas (e.g. City Region Partnerships, LEPs) and develop new investment tools (e.g. Tax Increment Funding). It is cities that appear to be developing ‘deals’ and ‘asks’ with Government – demanding greater control over local finance and strategies for housing, planning, transport, skills and health - with the transfer process overseen by the Cities and Local Growth Unit at DCLG.
Yet this broader shift from individual authorities and service silos has been happening in rural places for a very long time – before the devolution revolution – from undertaking small projects or sharing back office functions through to ambitious multi-agency partnerships. For me, whether or not devolution is going to benefit rural areas depends on who’s in control and what exactly is being devolved.
And with rural areas geographically spread and with sometimes two or three tiers of local government – how does the Governments devolution model suit rural places? Or can rural areas only play a part in the devolution process by having cities within them
Secondly, where do people fit? The Government views devolution deals as iterative with an expectation that local elected representatives gather the views of their constituents through whatever means they deem appropriate.
How can we ensure deals reflect what local people need and want and isn’t pulled towards serving local interests?
An Institute for Government report on ‘making devolution deals work’ found that in attempting to create new forms of subnational democracy, political control within England remains highly centralised; with Government officials engagement with local leaders described as being poor. People already face a complex regional/sub-national delivery structure – with combined authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships, Police and Crime Commissioners and health boards: are they all working in unison?
With some devolution deals including a directly elected mayor is this enhancing the structures already in place or adding an extra tier of local government?
The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) is preparing a ‘State of the Nation: Devolution report’. ICE commissioned ComRes to conduct a survey asking members of the public questions about infrastructure and devolution. The online survey of 1,724 adult found the majority of people agreed there should be more devolution and that it will have a positive effect on a wide range of infrastructure-related services including transport, skills and flood management.
The survey also revealed how people want a say on what it means – with a strong desire for any devolution to be voted on. So how can devolution be made relevant to rural residents and how can we ensure their needs are not overlooked? And how exactly can devolution empower leaders, officers, residents and businesses?
Thirdly, because of priorities and places, devolution deals are proceeding at different paces. The Government believes deals should be bottom up, bespoke and place led; and that they will vary according to the ambition, capacity and readiness of places. But for some rural areas this could lead to a perception that the approach being taken is asymmetric – with (urban) haves and (rural) have nots.
For those areas working with DCLG on deals the timescales vary according to the proposals (or asks) being put forward – again leading some areas to agree deals before others that may have started the process earlier.
The Government considers the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act to provide a good basis for the devolution agenda to evolve; will rural England become a white space in this dialogue or will it shape the agenda? Watch this space...