Devolution deals and the powers offered to localities: a menu with specials?

At the time of writing, ‘devolution deals’ have been agreed with four local areas within England: Greater Manchester, Sheffield, West Yorkshire and Cornwall. A number of others are reported to be in the pipeline (North-East, Liverpool, West Midlands, Tees Valley, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire): the Government announced that areas seeking a deal in time for the 2015 Spending Review would have to submit proposals by 4 September 2015.

The Government has said that the powers on offer to each local area will depend upon what the local areas themselves ask for and what they intend to do with their powers. They are content with this leading to a patchwork of different powers being transferred to different local areas. But far from being a free-for-all, the deals agreed so far exhibit many common features. This similarity can be seen in the ‘Devolution menu’ table below, which compares the deals agreed so far. Devolution in England looks increasingly like a menu with specials: certain options are available to all areas, but at the same time each area has been offered a few items that mark them out from their counterparts.

The devolution menu: core features of the deals

  Greater Manchester Leeds / W.Yorks Sheffield Cornwall
Further education and skills New FE system

Apprenticeship Grant for Employers

New FE system

Apprenticeship Grant for Employers

New FE system

Apprenticeship Grant for Employers

New FE system
Transport Funding + buses

Smart ticketing

Funding options

Links with Network Rail and Highways England

Funding options

Links with Network Rail and Highways England

Funding + buses

Smart ticketing

Business support UKTI & MAS funding

Funding from 2017

Integration

Funding from 2017

Integration

Funding from 2017

Integration

Funding from 2017

Work Programme Possible joint commissioning in 2017 Possible joint commissioning in 2017 Possible joint commissioning in 2017
Public sector land commission Yes Yes Yes Yes
Health & social care integration Yes Business plan
Policing Mayor to become Police and Crime Commissioner
Housing Funding
Fire service Mayor to take over [already held by Cornwall Council]
Spatial planning Yes [already held by Cornwall Council]
Economic development Mayoral Development Corporations; compulsory purchase
EU structural funds Intermediate body Intermediate body

 

The specials

Other more minor elements, not included in the table, make an appearance in only one of the deal areas, for instance:

  • West Yorkshire is to work with Network Rail and Rail North to ensure local and regional transport infrastructure projects are effectively aligned;
  • Network Rail will work with Sheffield to deliver infrastructure works to support the Rotherham tram-train pilot;
  • Cornwall will work with the Government to support the development of deep geothermal energy resources and locally-tailored energy efficiency improvements to homes;
  • Greater Manchester will expand its pilot of the Working Well scheme, supporting Employment Support Allowance claimants in finding jobs. It will also pilot a scheme to support older workers with long term health conditions back to work.

Multi-speed devolution

Do the devolution deals agreed so far give any clues as to the likely response to the flurry of devolution proposals in recent weeks? The Government has said that it is open-minded about which powers are transferred to local areas. Although the Chancellor has said that major devolution of power will require the establishment of an elected mayor – as in Greater Manchester – there has been no indication of where the line is to be drawn between those powers requiring a mayor and those which do not. There are some similarities between the powers to be transferred to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in advance of its mayor being elected and the deals offered to Sheffield and West Yorkshire; but the deal offered to Cornwall does not fit this pattern.

Also worthy of note is the nature of the proposals set out in the Table above. In a few areas a programme or a responsibility has been fully transferred. This is ‘devolution as we know it’, comparable to what has happened in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In other areas, the Government has committed to ‘joint working’ towards a future policy outcome. This does not involve passing any power or funding to the local area. In still others, there is a commitment to ‘explore’ or ‘work with’ the local area, with a view to possible future initiatives. This may lead to more efficient policy-making, drawing central expertise and local knowledge together into a productive partnership, but it is not the same as devolution of power to local government. Lord Heseltine’s characterisation of ‘devolution deals’ as a form of ‘partnership’ noted this distinction:

This is a partnership concept. Central governments are elected and they are entitled to have their manifestos implemented and it cannot be contemplated there is a sense of freedom at a local level which can actually frustrate the clear mandates upon which governments are elected….I am sympathetic to the word partnership rather than ‘freedom’ or ‘devolution’.[1]

This means that the success or otherwise of the deals will depend substantially on the quality of the informal relationships between the actors concerned. A continued emphasis on building trust from both sides, after the first flush of negotiation, will be of the essence.

Author: Mark Sandford

[1]               David Paine, “Heseltine: fiscal freedoms are unlikely for most councils”, 1 July 2015. The article quotes Lord Heseltine speaking at a Local Government Association conference. See also HLDeb 8 Jun 2015 c664-5.