Viewpoint: Making the deals real – a busy year for the pragmatists

Dandelion

Majeed Neky looks beyond the headlines to the practicalities of making the devolution deals work on the ground. 

Since its experimental beginnings around 2011, the process of decentralising power to English cities and regions through a succession of ‘deals’ has had pragmatism at its root. Five years on, the practical progress of local areas in forging partnerships, developing plans and delivering projects has been mirrored at the centre, including by George Osborne’s personal championing of devolution as “The thing I am fighting for most as Chancellor”. Further underlining the agenda’s journey to the heart of mainstream government policy, this year’s Budget brings the total number of live ‘Devolution Deal’ areas to 10, covering up to 30 per cent of the country’s population.

This evolution of deals – City, Growth and now Devolution – from a fringe pursuit to ‘the new normal’ has increasingly seen a battle developing between idealists and cynics – indeed, sometimes one and the same people. Yet behind the scenes it is still the pragmatists who are pressing on with making deals work – and there’s a lot of work to get on with.

Having secured headline deal agreements, there are three main practical tasks for places to work through. Initially, local authorities and their partners must confirm or ratify their agreement to the deal – a process which has at times grabbed the headlines.

Meanwhile, though, places and Whitehall must now collaborate closely and quickly at a more detailed level. This is happening on two fronts: firstly, ensuring that the governance arrangements and legislative requirements are in place to enable and ‘lock in’ devolution, and secondly, developing the policy and delivery arrangements needed to bring deals from headlines to reality.

On governance and legislation, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 provides a clear legal basis for taking forward devolution. Deal areas are required to publish a ‘scheme’ setting out plans for the scope of their proposed Combined Authority. Importantly, the law sets out the need for thorough local public consultation on this scheme, with clear evidence of this consultation required before legislation can be taken forward. The scheme is also the key opportunity to set out clear arrangements for local representation, participation and scrutiny of the Mayor and Combined Authority.

Once the scheme is published, a number of parliamentary Orders must be drafted, laid and debated in Parliament in order to complete the legal process of forming the Combined Authority and conferring new functions on it. Timescales are tight to ensure that this process can be completed in time for proposed Mayoral elections in May 2017, and local officers and Members and DCLG officials are working together intensively to make this happen.

In parallel, local areas are developing detailed implementation plans, addressing how commitments agreed in deal documents will be delivered. Owned by local areas, the plans variously set out key details such as respective roles and responsibilities, milestones, monitoring and evaluation plans and accountability arrangements. Mirroring the detailed collaborative work of local partnerships, the Cities and Local Growth Unit has established a process which brings together senior Whitehall officials across Departments to support – and on occasion challenge – local areas, and each other, to take forward agreed deal commitments.

One of the most satisfying aspects of all of this work is the close working relationships forged not only between local partners, but also between central government officials and council officers. The ability to build trust and goodwill is essential not only to successful implementation in the short term, as colleagues grapple with tight deadlines and knotty policy issues, but also to bringing about a longer-term cultural shift towards adopting new ways of working and a more place-based perspective on policy and delivery.

Also crucial to the implementation process is its ability to evolve as time goes on – backing up the government’s commitment that deals are not a one-off, but rather an ongoing conversation. This is where the pragmatism of the deal-making approach, with its ability to ‘bank’ progress and use it as a foothold to move further, comes into its own. Greater Manchester’s progress in implementing its existing commitments while simultaneously securing new ones is well known in the sector; recently, the area has taken the opportunity to publish for consultation an updated scheme, which sets out the new and improved powers that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority will in future be able to take on. Meanwhile, Liverpool City Region’s solid progress in strengthening its partnerships and implementing its commitments has seen the area negotiate a further deal announcement in Budget 2016, opening up new fronts in local partners’ ability to deliver economic growth and public service reform.

Hot on the heels of these implementation challenges comes another challenge: communications and engagement. With nine areas currently working towards Mayoral elections in May 2017, ensuring that the public has a clear understanding of the changes, a strong voice in shaping them locally and a sense of excitement about the possibilities ahead will be crucial in getting these new institutions off to the right start. More so than the legislation, the visibility and credibility of new local institutions and leaders will be critical in establishing devolution ever more firmly as the natural direction of travel. Meanwhile, the overhaul of business rates and local government finance announced last year (notably to be piloted in some of the leading deal areas) provides a backdrop of more widespread change and reform which will further sharpen the role of the devolution agenda through local discretion over business rates, new local service responsibilities and a greater role for LEPs.

Though the two can’t – and shouldn’t – be separated, it’s clear that behind the politics lies a great deal of practical work to ensure that devolution lives up to its promise. Both central government and local places are keenly aware of their responsibility to seize this opportunity and ensure that these small, pragmatic steps on both sides really do add up to a big deal.

Majeed Neky is an LGiU associate who has recently started a devolution strategy role in the cross-government Cities and Local Growth Unit.

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