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The devolution revolution is just starting to spin

Patience and willingness to play a canny long game will be key for local leaders.

Let's start with the numbers. Eight city regions (and Cornwall) have agreed devolution deals, waiting for the likely enactment of the Cities and Devolution Bill in early 2016 to bring them to life. Six of these are expected to have directly elected "metro mayors'" in 2017. 

A total of 38 localities – partnerships of local authorities and regional organisations, including some of the above – rushed to meet the Chancellor's accelerated timetable to pitch for devolution. Although, in practice, the credibility of these proposals varied widely.

Of the areas still hoping for a deal, reports suggest that conversations with HM Treasury are fairly advanced in a handful of cases, with the remainder uncertain about what may or may not be on offer. It is inevitable that some will be left disappointed for the time being.

There has been a drip-feed of announcements from the centre about areas that have been smiled upon with additional freedoms and flexibilities. Most recently a number of health devolution pilots within London which, although important, amount to permission to experiment within narrow envelopes rather than meaningful steps towards local self-determination.

Concerns and signs of impatience are beginning to emerge from some quarters – in particular, there is growing recognition that none of the agreed deals cover two-tier areas. Many assume that the offer to these areas, mostly rural and sometimes lacking the obvious economic dynamism of the city regions, will be less far-reaching.

Other than the surprise announcement of business rate reform, where the devil really will be in the detail, there is also deafening silence with regard to fiscal devolution. It doesn’t appear to be on the table at the moment. Along with the LGA, Centre for Cities and many others, we argue that the ability to vary local taxation is key to providing the incentives and levers for significant growth.

It is worth noting, however, that the current position represents the end of the beginning. This agenda is going to run and run, and similar deals are likely to be made throughout the lifetime of this parliament and potentially beyond. The government deserves credit for setting this agenda in motion; by public sector standards it has moved a remarkable distance in a short time.

In our recent Making Devolution Work report, developed in conjunction with Localis, we spoke to leading figures in local and national government in order to get "under the bonnet" of negotiation processes and provide guidance on getting the best possible outcomes for local communities. Our key recommendations to local leaders include the following:

• Innovation and a nuanced focus on local outcomes is key. Proposals must be evidence-led and rooted in a sense of place - not a shopping list culled from other deals. 'Me-tooism' will be frowned upon.

• Bite the bullet on combined authorities and mayors for a far-reaching deal. Why would central government place itself in the position of having to justify powers for your area based on existing governance structures for which they required an elected mayor elsewhere?

• Track record is important. Partners in Greater Manchester have been building up to their current elevated status for years. If your local devolution partnership has just been convened, consider pitching for a smaller deal and building some shared collateral and confidence: success will breed success.

• Get the right partners on board. Our research suggested that LEPs generally felt well engaged, but there was a more mixed picture for health bodies, universities and housing associations. Proposals that impact these areas without demonstrable unity of purpose are unlikely to make the cut.

Of course, once each deal is done, the real work begins. Learning from the leading areas shows that the sheer effort required to implement some of the more radical whole-system changes, especially around health and social care, should not be underestimated. 

Furthermore, many of the governance and political issues have not yet been bottomed out, and it is likely that partnerships that have already been tested severely through the deal-making process will be pushed further still through the trials of implementation.

If the deals currently being formulated are to be delivered, there will have to be many significant cultural and behavioural shifts within organisations for whom flexibility has not always been a strength.

Finally, nobody has yet answered the key question of what devolution really means for communities and business – even Greater Manchester, the leading locality, recognises that it has more to do in order to articulate this. Despite all the excitement, these are early days for the devolution revolution. Patience and willingness to play a canny long game are going to be key for local leaders.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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