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Devolution: the start of a new era

People have more trust in councils than they do in government

By Gary Porter  

"Liverpool will get additional new powers over transport and business rates" ©Best Shot Factory/Rex/Shutterstock

Read more from Prospect’s “The Future of Cities” supplement

County and rural areas make up roughly half of England’s economy and population, meaning their economic potential is as significant as that of big cities. Devolution agreements announced in the March Budget—including for my own patch of Greater Lincolnshire—recognise this.

Securing a deal is just the first step in securing more powers and funding to help residents and businesses. Greater Manchester will gain control of criminal justice powers while Liverpool will get additional new powers over transport and business rates.

Local government is ambitious to do more, to take more decisions locally and to move to a more self-sustaining financial position. Negotiations continue in many areas but the machinery of Whitehall can take time. In recent decades, our public services have become increasingly centralised. This needs to change.

Councils must capitalise on the opportunities that devolution presents. We at the LGA have been working with councils to help them make the most of this opportunity, advising on the governance and accountability arrangements that must be in place alongside these new powers. We have also helped in their negotiations with Whitehall departments.

Transformation of this scale and pace will require fundamentally different ways of working and leaders will need to work across party lines and foster an environment where political, cultural and geographical differences energise, not stifle, debates about the detail of devolution.

Devolution is an exciting development but will increase the need for skills that we haven’t needed at such scale before in councils. Councils will need to increase their economic and data analysis capacity and take a more systems-based approach to the provision of public services. This is a challenge given councils now face funding pressures.

As existing deals take shape, they will offer some valuable lessons about how to turn proposals into firm transformation plans, and we will be in close contact with our colleagues across the country to work with them and see what we can learn from their experiences.

Local people know best how to spend public money in their local area and our polling shows residents trust their council more than central government to take decisions over services in their community. Keeping residents informed and engaged in the process is vital. While it is right that devolution deals are not imposed, but negotiated and secured by local places, greater public engagement throughout the deal-making process is important and we are working with councils to support them in this through our “Communications: at the heart of devolution” events. This has included sessions for councillors and officers across the country to explore the crucial role communications will play in involving communities in the devolution conversation.

Devolution is the start of a new era for local democracy and local government is in this for the long-term. It is a massive opportunity to help ensure services are tailored to best meet the needs of local people and we want to see ambition from government departments that matches that of local places in considering the powers devolved and different models of governance appropriate to both cities and county areas.

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