The devolution revolution has stalled. Despite permissive legislation, negotiations in areas up and down the country have run into the sand, and in May 2017 it is likely there will only be six elections for metro mayors.
The problems in the devolution process have been endemic from the start. With no clear purpose, process or timescale, a culture of centralised thinking in Whitehall, and with intransigence on the part of too many local political leaders, it is apparent that once again the devolution rhetoric is failing to match reality on the ground.
This is no small issue. If it is to achieve its vision of an economy that works for everyone, the government must put the devolution of powers and responsibilities to the lowest appropriate level of government at the core of its industrial strategy.
There is a common-sense approach though that could reboot the devolution process. Devolution must be based on a series of clear and explicit principles concerning the geography and scale of devolution areas; a ‘menu’ or framework of the powers that could be devolved; and a range of options for reforms to governance that are commensurate with the level of devolution an area is seeking.
Far from being prescriptive, a principle-based framework would provide local areas with the certainty to develop a proposal that works for their context.
In this paper we outline such a framework. Focusing especially on non-metropolitan areas, where deals have been most difficult to achieve, we provide three common-sense ‘tools’ with which to reboot the existing process. These include the following.
- An explanation as to why county geography might be the best scale from which build devolution areas and where in a handful of cases some areas might wish to join forces to enhance their scale.
- A framework of powers based upon discrete packages or ‘stages’ as a template upon which individual proposals can be based and as a means of building confidence in local politicians that devolution is a journey not a one-off bid for back-door reform.
- A set of further options to set alongside metro-mayors to ensure that devolved powers are accompanied with commensurate reform to provide visibility and accountability within the emerging local government architecture.
Finally we argue that to reboot the devolution revolution, the government should:
- Set out a statement of its vision and underlying principles, including any ‘red lines’ it sees on geography, powers or governance.
- Provide a framework for devolution negotiations based on discrete ‘packages’ or stages and with some minimum standards for governance reform in relation to each.
- Set out a timetable for future developments with clear windows for negotiation and deal-making.