Devolution doesn’t always mean taking back control
Since Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, successive UK governments have fiddled around with ways of devolving power from Westminster and Whitehall. The most radical has been Scottish devolution, which continues to evolve. The least coherent has been the patchwork of schemes developed across England, ranging from a well-thought out arrangement for London, with a directly elected mayor and assembly, to the make-it-up-as-you-go-along “devolution deals” for the rest.
The coalition government of 2010-15 abolished – wisely – the regional governance bureaucracies. The first big replacement idea was Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), intended as “business-led” mechanisms for spending public money. The areas covered by LEPs were in some cases obvious, based for example on established city regions or former metropolitan counties. In others the rationale was less clear, perhaps nowhere more so than the Heart of the South West (HotSW) LEP, covering a massive area from Plymouth to the south of Bristol . It’s tempting to think that after Cornwall decided to go their own way and Bristol wasn’t having any truck with its Somerset neighbours, that HotSW was the “bit left over”.
The performance of these fundamentally secretive and undemocratic bodies is not the focus of this post . They are relevant because the LEP areas have in some cases – including HotSW – formed the basis of the subsequent devolution proposals in England.
The government has been inviting groups of local authorities to submit proposals for devolving decision-making in certain functions, particularly infrastructure and economic development, but not limited to these.
The rationale behind this approach is that increasing productivity, a key goal of government policy, is best achieved by local targeting of support measures through local authorities and business interests working together.
The government has made it clear that access to some central funding is dependent on devolution deals being agreed. Invariably, local authorities across the area commit to setting up a “combined authority” to take the decisions. Unlike London, this would not be directly elected but would be made up of the leaders of the constituent councils plus non-elected representatives of the NHS and the LEP. Initially, agreement to having a directly-elected mayor was a condition of a devolution deal but the government now seems to be less rigid on this.
One of the problems with this approach is that it was designed for large urban areas. Greater Manchester, for example, has operated as a partnership of councils across a coherent area since the 1960s when Passenger Transport Authorities were set up. Manchester is the trail-blazer in the current devolution game, and it clearly works for them.
What is less clear is that the combined authority structure will work well in those areas of England that aren’t part of a conurbation. A pretentious-sounding body called The Independent Commission on Economic Growth and the Future of Public Services in Non-Metropolitan England produced a report last year arguing for devolution deals for the rest of England .
It does make the useful point that LEP areas do not in most cases coincide with functional economic areas (a conclusion which should be enough to discredit the whole idea of LEPs), but is otherwise a typical product of this debate in that it focusses on structures and “partnerships” from which communities are largely excluded.
The councils within the HotSW area have submitted a devolution bid to the government . The bid identifies 6 challenges for the area (low productivity growth, limited labour market, patchy performance in innovation and enterprise, an ageing population, health and care integration, infrastructure and connectivity) and 6 “Golden Opportunities” for improving growth and productivity (marine, nuclear, aerospace and advanced engineering, data analytics, rural productivity, health and care). The bid has a wholly economic focus: other than in references to care, the word “social” does not appear in the document, and there is no acknowledgement of the impacts of the plans on the natural environment.
If the bid succeeds – and at least some of the councils are treating the whole exercise with a degree of caution – decision-making on the plans and services covered by the bid will be sucked upwards from the councils and the people they represent. How the combined authority will balance the interests of, say, Plymouth with those of people in the Mendips will be discussed in officer-led groups behind closed doors – because that is the only way “partnership” working can be made to operate in practice. The need to prepare for joint meetings gives authority officers huge influence over agendas and decisions because of the need to coordinate positions and identify common solutions in advance of meetings.
The combined authority itself will be made up of leaders of the constituent councils and others. It will not be directly elected. Trying to influence its decisions will be next to impossible for individuals and community groups. The bid’s economic focus ignores environmental and community questions completely, so being able to provide a counter-balance is hugely important. As it is, the bid’s environmental credentials are defined by the partnership’s LEP-led role as a cheerleader for the new Hinkley Point nuclear power station.
Other devolution bids across England generate similar challenges. At a time when disillusion with our politics is at an all-time high, it is puzzling – to put it mildly – that decision-making is to move even further away from the people most affected
 The map of LEP areas at http://www.lepnetwork.net/the-network-of-leps/ shows just how large the area is.
 An excellent House of Commons briefing note (July 2016) provides a concise guide to LEPs including reviews of their performance – see http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn05651.pdf
 The bid document is at https://new.devon.gov.uk/democracy/files/2016/01/Heart-of-the-South-West-Devolution-Prospectus.pdf