19 May 2016

English devolution continues to dominate this government’s agenda and provides a significant opportunity to reform local public services. Following an event at the Institute for Government, Nehal Davison highlights the opportunities and challenges of turning ‘devo deal’ commitments into real improvements on the ground.

English devolution event

An expert panel convened by the Institute for Government agreed that English devolution provides a major opportunity to tackle long-standing barriers to local public service integration. Previously, local areas were ‘hamstrung by the lack of access to some of the big levers or benefits’, explained Andrew Gates, Head of Policy at Sheffield City Region LEP/Combined Authority. In fact, the Institute’s public services timeline shows that central government has tried to encourage integration at a local level no less than 59 times over the last 19 years, yet we have still not seen substantial improvements in public services. Devolution has the potential to change this through flexible funding arrangements that allow local areas to invest in integration and prevention, but to also crucially ‘keep some of the advantages and benefits of doing so’. Indeed, we are seeing the benefits of devolution for public service reform across the country.

‘A lot of people think devolution is about the economy and growth’ explained Rachel Jones, Chief Superintendent at West Midlands Police. But, she said, sustained economic growth requires investment in skills, which, in turn, requires investment in early years (i.e. young children) and in the long-term resilience of their communities. Devolution in the West Midlands has spearheaded a focus on prevention, particularly on improving the life chances of troubled individuals by bringing together mental health, employment, skills and offending services. Likewise, devolution of the adult skills budget to Sheffield City Region by 2018/19 has ‘let the genie out of the bottle on public service reform’, which is now ‘happening by the back door’, according to Andrew Gates. Greater Manchester has gone the furthest; Rachel Pykett, Senior Policy Analyst in the Greater Manchester Public Service Reform team, explained that the ‘whole point of devolution is that we’re having a different dialogue with government…about how we could manage public services.’ The recent devolution to the region of more than £6 billion of public funding for health and social care is just one example of this. The panellists and audience agreed, however, that four key areas need attention as we move from deal-making to implementation:

  • Set realistic timescales: Rachel Pykett reminded the audience that Greater Manchester has been on a ‘long journey to devolution’. Although the first deal was agreed in November 2014, it has been 20 years in the making. In contrast, as Rachel Jones put it herself, the West Midlands has been working on it for ‘only 20 minutes”’. Yet, the ‘race to devo 2’ is creating a mad rush of activity, even though some areas do not know yet what the right geographical grouping is and who their partners are. As the Institute has previously argued, tight timescales mean areas do not have sufficient time to invest in local partnerships and develop credible and deliverable proposals.
  • Ensure political buy-in. Some members of the audience argued that it seemed like devolution was being led by local authority chief executives and service leaders, rather than politicians. The panel agreed that sustained political leadership at a local level – through new metro mayors who will be elected in 2017 – is crucial to ensuring devolution deal commitments translate into real changes on the ground. As Andrew Gates highlighted, the role of the London Mayor holds important lessons – although the list of formal powers is limited, ‘the influence they have exercised is huge and has gone into territory you wouldn’t have thought possible’.
  • Reform regulation and inspection. Currently, national regulation and inspection regimes ‘drive partners down different routes’ focusing on a single service rather than citizen outcomes or pathways, explained Rachel Pykett. To ensure devolution delivers better outcomes, the panel agreed that Whitehall should encourage locally-led assurance, scrutiny and challenge processes that are responsive to local communities rather than the needs of national regulators and departments.
  • Get better at learning from one another. Andrew Campbell, Associate Director at the Local Government Association, highlighted that there is some diversity in how areas are taking forward public service reform agendas through devolution deals and that we are likely to see a ‘mixed economy’ in five years’ time. The audience and panel agreed that lessons from these various experiments should be shared widely to ensure progress is built on and mistakes avoided; but, as Rachel Jones added, there is a real risk that competition between local areas could discourage them from sharing lessons with those not as far along the journey.

Over the last year, the Institute has been exploring some of these themes and will be publishing a paper in July 2016 on how to support learning between local areas to improve outcomes on the ground.

Further information

Watch 'What will English devolution mean for joining up local public services?' in full. This event was supported by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation.