We need to talk about devolution

Council action on devolution must be as much about talking as options appraisal

writes Phil Swann.

Ministers look set to present councils in two tier areas with a stark choice: establish mayoral combined authorities and introduce unitary local government or in effect opt out of the possibility of securing devolved powers and resources from government.

For a moment, let’s set on one side the debate about how attractive the devolution offer is and whether the government has the capacity to handle many more devolution negotiations. This, like it or not, is the most attractive show in town for the next four years.

The way in which local government leaders, political and managerial, discuss the way forward in each area, between themselves and with local communities and stakeholders, is critically important for three reasons. Two of these reasons are drawn from research Si carried out on lessons from previous reorganisations for the County Councils Network in 2016. The other reason was highlighted in more recent research on the relationship between county and district councils.

The main source of evidence for our CCN report was a series of non-attributable interviews with political and managerial leaders from unitary councils that were created in the 1990s and 2009. One striking conclusion from those interviews was that the nature of the process for designing and agreeing the new unitary arrangements can have a significant impact on the performance and effectiveness of the successor council’s performance. People spoke about the fight for or against unitary status, yet fights rarely end well.

This is the first reason why the way in which the discussion is managed and facilitated matters. Discussions about local government reorganisation will never be easy, but it is important that the range of options is discussed in as inclusive a way as possible. The shadow of history, resulting from a failure to do so, is a very long one.

The second reason relates to the criteria for an effective unitary council. There has been a lot of noise about a size threshold. Our research concluded that what actually matters is the interaction between three factors: scale, geography and sense of place. How these factors interact will vary significantly from place to place. One of these factors can be measured; one is informed by data and can be captured on a map; the third is more difficult to pin down. Reaching a conclusion on what that interaction means in terms of proposals for unitary local government in a particular place is a matter of judgement which needs to be informed by reasoned discussion and debate.

The final reason reflects a factor that emerged strongly from some recent work on the attributes of effective collaboration between county and district councils. In short, the conclusion was that a precondition of effective collaboration is that structural reform is not on the table. Our hypothesis is that the reverse is also likely to be true, and that there is a danger that the start of a unitary debate will disrupt the effective collaboration that is taking place in many areas. In the current circumstances, in which collaboration is key to recovery from the pandemic and lockdown, that risk must be averted.

In our experience four steps are crucially important to avoiding that risk and creating the conditions for a constructive discussion about devolution and unitary local government.

First, it is critically important to maintain a remorseless focus on delivering shared ambitions for local residents, communities and businesses. The existence of an up-to-date place-based vision can reinforce this and the task of producing it can engage all councils in the process alongside residents, communities, businesses and local anchor institutions.

Second, there must also be a shared understanding about how a devolution agreement with government could help to deliver those ambitions. Being clear about this will help to build support for the case for change.

Third, the discussion about the shape of local government in the area must be driven by the three factors referred to above (scale, geography and sense of place) in the context of the delivery of the ambitions for the area.

Fourth, all the above must be underpinned by robust and accessible evidence which is presented in a way that stimulates discussion and informs action.

How Shared Intelligence can help

At Shared Intelligence we use data and evidence, logical ways of thinking and facilitated conversations to hep our clients achieve better outcome for the places and communities they serve

These skills are particularly important in helping councils respond to the government’s devolution offer

We have extensive experience of developing long term, place-based visions. Recent assignments included the development of visions for Dudley and Stratford on Avon.

We have supported discussions about devolution agreements in a variety of places including Gloucestershire, South Essex and the 3SC area (East Sussex, Surrey and West Sussex). We also wrote the LGA’s guide to combined authorities.

We have been commissioned to facilitate conversations about local government reorganisation by a number of clients including two county councils and three district councils.

We use evidence to inform discussions and policy development in different settings, including economic strategies, public service reform and governance reviews.

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