REUTERS | Larry Downing

Is devolution heading in the right direction?

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill 2015-16  is currently making its way through Parliament. The Bill takes forward reforms that are intended to allow for the implementation of devolution agreements with combined authority areas and with other areas. Its main provisions:

  • Provide for an elected mayor for the combined authority who would exercise specified functions individually and chair the authority.
  • Provide for the mayor to exercise the functions of the Police and Crime Commissioner for the combined authority area.
  • Broaden the functions than can be conferred on combined authorities beyond economic, development, regeneration and transport.

Devolution out-riders

The first areas to benefit from the changes are likely to be Manchester and Cornwall. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) will benefit from new powers, including in relation to health and social care. Greater Manchester will also be the first city region to use the legislation to elect a metropolitan mayor. Cornwall Council will also acquire new powers though will not be required to elect a mayor.

George Osborne’s 2015 Summer Budget revealed that the government is in talks with local authorities in Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield to bring in devolution deals similar to those guaranteed for Manchester and Cornwall, declaring devolution has “only just begun”.

A heavy emphasis is being placed on health care and social care in both areas, but Cornwall have announced further plans. They will be given control over the local bus service and, with the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), will be given more flexibility to help local firms grow by integrating local and national services.

This plan to grant greater powers to local authorities to control local services is intended to give councils  freedom to choose their projects and partners. Authorities will have the ability to attune their services to better fit the needs of their citizens; to develop the local economy and to generate more jobs. It is believed that giving local authorities flexibility in how they use their budget swill allow them to tailor services to specific needs.

For instance, the GMCA has received £6 billion from the NHS, and is working with its local Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) to integrate health and social care in innovative new ways to provide overall more cohesive and responsive services.

The Bill will assemble the legal framework that will allow for simpler devolution of these powers and more in the future.

Aims of devolution

The DevoNext Campaign, run by the Local Government Association (LGA), boasts some impressive figures. The LGA claims that devolution can generate £80 billion worth of growth; create 700,000 new jobs; build half a million new homes; reduce youth unemployment by 20% and save the UK £1.25 billion a year.

How will all these benefits be achieved? Cornwall and Manchester’s local authorities have not explained exactly how their plans will be implemented and their goals achieved. The LGA believes devolution is the key to more sustainable finance, a stronger economy and long-term prosperity, but how changing the current government model will engender more efficient services remains to be seen.

Potential problems


A key question is who can be held accountable if devolution fails to improve the quality of service? Shadow Health Minister, Lord Hunt, argued that it was “unclear” which authority was responsible for Greater Manchester’s NHS, and that decentralising decisions risked a “bureaucratic mess”. Avoiding such bureaucracy is at the heart of some of the more significant amendments to the Bill. As it stands, none of the authorities involved need publish a report into the details of the merge, nor will local people need to be consulted on the grounds that this could cause delays to devolution deals (see Legal update, House of Lords publishes report on amendments to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill).

During a debate in the House of Lords, Baroness Williams of Trafford, when asked who would take decisions in relation to the NHS in Greater Manchester, said there was a “partnership board”. She admitted that she did not know who a suit could be filed against, continuing, “it might be the chairman” and the “ultimate accountable person” would be “the board itself”. On the ambiguous nature of the proposed legislation, she claimed that there was “no need” for specificity as the details had been covered in the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the GMCA and the government earlier this year.

However, after the debate, Lord Hunt remarked that the Minister “seems absolutely clueless” about the practicalities of how the devolution settlement would work in Manchester. The Bill is set to allow the creation of more devolved entities, but how these will operate to the betterment of local areas remains ambiguous.

Lack of precision

The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in its fourth report accused the Bill of being too “imprecise” and “vague” as it fails to specify which powers can be devolved. The Cornish authorities have announced their intention to put forward a “bold scheme” for the future, but they have yet to prescribe the exact details of this.

Decisive powers

Despite the lack of concrete policy on behalf of local and public authorities, what has become clear is that in order to make devolution work, there needs to be a decisive body directing funds and personnel to the most critical areas. Yet, the Secretary of State retaining the ability to “overrule” decisions made by local authorities may have the potential to undermine devolution talks with other counties.

David Cameron claimed in relation to the devolution deal for Cornwall that:

“This devolution deal marks a major shift for the people who live and work in Cornwall – putting power in their hands and giving them the tools to take charge and make the most of the fantastic potential that Cornwall holds”

He added that “clear, strong leadership” must be evident for any  local authorities “seeking additional powers”.

Additional powers are also scheduled to be devolved to Greater Manchester now that Tony Lloyd has been elected mayor by the ten heads of the local authorities that comprise Greater Manchester. The Greater Manchester Police Service and Fire and Rescue Service have also been placed under the mayor’s jurisdiction, as well as other areas like economic development and transport. However, in 2017, the citizens of Greater Manchester will be given the opportunity to elect their own mayor.

Devolution going forward

Ultimately, devolution is feasible, and if it’s going to be attempted it must succeed, as any failure has the potential to be disastrous for devolved areas. For successful devolution to occur, any decision-making process must be transparent, with a chain of responsibility and clear levels of accountability.

Tony Lloyd affirmed that “[The public] must and will be involved. We are on the brink of change that is real and will be lasting. It is vital the public takes centre stage and is part of the debate.”

Statistically, at least, devolution appears to be the way to go. An LGA survey in 2014 found that 79% of respondents trusted their local government more than they trusted central government. However, it is essential that the public are informed and are leading the devolution discussion.

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