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Is English devolution dead?

Before the EU referendum the path for English devolution was relatively clear. Dr Jo Casebourne and Lucy Campbell ask whether the devolution agenda is now in peril.

Seven months on from the EU referendum, Greater Lincolnshire and the East of England deals have fallen apart and the Sheffield mayoral election has been postponed. There has been remarkably little success in securing devolution deals in ‘two-tier’ areas, where service provision is split across two levels: county and district councils.

Last week in Birmingham, the Institute for Government and Grant Thornton convened local government chief executives to find out what could be done to get English devolution outside of cities back on track. We heard how Suffolk, Oxfordshire and Nottinghamshire have all been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to secure devolution deals with government, summarised by one chief executive as ‘18 months of drama, comedy and tragedy’.

Local government can revive English devolution

Local authorities in areas with both counties and districts have learned a lot about what doesn’t work in trying to secure devolution deals with government. To make the deals work, they must work to:

  • Build a narrative: offer something that central government cannot refuse. Local authorities must be ambitious and assertive, presenting an exciting and clear vision to central government and to their constituents.
  • Build relationships and buy-in: engage with partners and the public to get the buy-in and support that devolution needs.
  • Engage local politicians: otherwise they will not commit to or support a combined local authority or a new mayor.
  • Consider non-mayoral models: Unitarisation is where county and district councils unite into one political body, as we’ve seen in Cornwall. It can be an equally eye-catching and appealing model if mayors do not work for some areas.
  • Learn from global examples: Mayoral models are used around the world outside of city regions – local authorities should use these examples to challenge assumptions about the sorts of places that mayors make sense for.  

Central government needs to provide clarity

With some authorities questioning if they should keep putting time and effort into devolution, central government needs to:

  • provide clarity on what is happening for non-metropolitan areas seeking devolution deals (as we’ve argued before)
  • stop removing local innovation from bids, as this makes them uniform and unexciting, making it harder to engage the electorate
  • avoid using the precedent of Greater Manchester to limit what other devolution deals can contain.

Mayoral elections in jeopardy?

So far, public enthusiasm for devolution has been limited. Many people living in places with a metro mayor election in May – Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Tees Valley, West of England and West Midlands – are still unaware that an election will be taking place.

Although the narrative of devolution emphasises local power, public engagement has not matched this rhetoric and polling has shown only lukewarm support. Attendees of our event suggested that it might be possible for local politicians to use the guiding narrative of Brexit – taking back control – to communicate devolution and to mobilise the public. This could avoid seeing a repeat of low voter turnout as happened with Police and Crime Commissioners, which would undermine the legitimacy of the new mayors.

Our next event in the English Local Leadership series – ‘How will new mayors work with Whitehall to improve prospects for their city-regions?’ – takes place on 20 March 2017 and will explore these issues further.  

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