Devolution is an issue that can struggle to stay in the political spotlight. Local authority groups like we in the Key Cities press government hard for more powers. We garner support from individuals and groups who agree that public services should reflect the needs of local communities rather than Whitehall preferences.
Then there is a government review. The momentum behind this important issue, which has so many implications for the wellbeing of people and businesses across the country, slips away. And we lose track of which cities have been granted which powers, amid a sea of technical details from Whitehall.
We can’t let that happen this time. Our colleagues at the Local Government Association (LGA) have suggested that, to avoid this eventually, the government should produce a report every 12 months measuring its devolution progress.
We strongly support this approach. Both the government, and the opposition parties, have made noteworthy commitments to hand over powers to local authorities. It is vital that they are held to what they have promised.
We have made significant strides over the past few months and years. The City Deals have marked an important step in promoting economic growth, by playing to the special strengths of our diverse communities. Greater Manchester has been awarded control over an impressive range of policy areas.
We now have a Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which promises further powers to enable cities to determine their own housing, transport, and skills policies. Our first priority is that the bill passes without delay and does not get watered down along the way.
But as anyone familiar with this territory knows well enough, the hardest part is just getting on with it. The bill itself is enabling legislation – different parts of the new law can be applied to different local authorities at the government’s discretion.
And that’s where we need to be vigilant. A legislative framework does not mean that our cities are actually getting new powers. It means they can get these powers – there is still the possibility for the Government to hold up the process and maintain its central control.
An annual report can do something to remedy this. It could show how many combined authorities have received new powers and which powers they have not. It should also show which authorities have asked for new powers and not received them yet.
There is a precedent for this in the public services. NHS England has piloted Innovation Scorecards, which measure how well the health service is meeting its commitments to improving performance across the country. We can do the same, for employment, skills, business support, housing and transport.
Looking forward, we know that devolution cannot just be a matter of accountability for central government: local authorities will have to be held accountable for how they have used their new powers, too. I hope that different areas can institute the sort of robust governance structures which will ensure that our constituents see results.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the issue of local governance reform. Indeed, one of the great strengths of our cities and one of the greatest opportunities of devolution is to exploit the diversity of skills and expertise we possess. We should not try to apply a new kind of centralism – but we should expect to be asked why we made all this fuss.
And just as the government will have to show that it is actually handing over powers, we, as LGA Chair Gary Porter has argued, will have to show that we are building more houses, improving transport links, giving our people more skills, and promoting business investment. We are ready for that challenge.
Cllr Paul Watson is leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group of 26 mid-sized cities.
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