In principle, the current devolution agenda represents a magnificent opportunity for our cities and regions. It has the potential to transform governance, giving those areas who reach new Devolution Deals greater strategic planning powers and the ability to better determine the direction of their future economic development. It also represents an opportunity to enhance our democracy, bringing decisions on important issues closer to the people effected by them.
To date, the Government’s devolution agenda has been well received across the board, and has achieved an impressive degree of cross-party support. In Manchester, where the vast majority of District Councils are Labour-run, there has been a great deal of political enthusiasm for the new programme of Devolution Deals.
The process is of course ongoing, and some have been particularly frustrated by the pace of fiscal devolution and the constraints that this will place on the new Combined Authorities’ ability to drive investment in areas such as infrastructure.
This week, a report by the Communities and Local Government Committee highlighted a further issue of concern. The authors argued that there has been a “significant lack of public consultation and engagement at all stages in the devolution process”. In particular the report pointed to the fact that the seven week Government-set deadline for submitting the original devolution bids made it difficult for even the local authorities involved to be consulted and to agree a deal.
This is an important point. The underlying logic of devolution is to bring decision making closer to the people. It should facilitate the creation of services – and plans – that better reflect the needs of residents and other local stakeholder. Indeed, the enabling legislation set out in the Devolution Bill is designed to allow flexibility regarding the powers to be devolved to each area and to facilitate bespoke Devolution Deals that meet the specific needs of each area. It would therefore seem logical to make sure that all relevant stakeholders have the opportunity to feed into the process.
Better engagement would also help to clarify the objectives for each devolution deal. The report noted that local authorities were often unclear about which devolved powers they needed and why. A clear local vision, developed in partnership with local stakeholders, would surely help to establish the direction and scope for devolution in each area.
With the current devolution agenda now in its infancy, the Government must work with local authorities to make the process more inclusive. Future Devolution Deals should be conducted in a more transparent manner – giving local people a real say over the future of their areas.
This is particularly important from a planning perspective. As cities and regions take on greater strategic planning powers, it is essential that the local people feel that they have a stake in the process. Greater public engagement and consultation could help to generate increased consensus and legitimacy around future plans – giving residents the sense that they are part of a larger project to enhance their areas.
On the other hand, if local people are alienated from the process of devolution from the outset, it could make it much more difficult to bring them along with the strategic plans that emerge at a later date.