Devolution: What’s new in the Levelling Up White Paper?

February 2, 2022  

Charlotte Morgan gives a rapid response to the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper – and what it really says about devolution.

The twelfth mission of the UK Government’s Levelling Up White Paper is:

By 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement.

So what new devolution policies are in the white paper? Here is our rapid summary of the key points.

What is the devolution framework?

The white paper introduces a devolution framework, which sets out which powers and resources are on offer for local and combined authorities depending on their governance arrangement.

The framework is on page 140 (table 2.3) of the white paper.

What powers are on offer?

Local authorities seeking to form a new mayoral combined authority (MCA) will be offered broadly the same powers and access to funds that existing MCAs have.

These include devolution of some elements of the Adult Education Budget to invest in local skills development, the ability to introduce bus franchising, and control of Police and Crime Commissioner functions. (See the devolution framework in the white paper for the full list.)

The Government will open negotiations with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the West Midlands Combined Authority to streamline their funding pots and develop ‘trailblazer deals’, which will build on their existing devolution settlements.

Other MCAs will have the opportunity to bid for more powers and funding at a later stage, with the two trailblazer deals serving as a “blueprint.” The Greater London Authority will also be invited to bid for further powers through the devolution framework.

What are the conditions for new devolution deals?

The white paper presents the Government’s four principles underpinning the devolution framework. These will guide future devolution deals in England.

1. Effective leadership

The Government’s strong preference is for an area to have a directly elected leader in order to receive new powers. A small number of powers will still be available for other forms of governance but most powers on the table will only be offered to combined authorities with a directly elected leader.

2. Sensible geography

The Government will give priority to devolution deals covering a functional economic area or a whole county geography (e.g. a county council joining with unitary authorities in the county).

Any council or group of councils must have a combined population of at least 500,000 people to obtain a deal. Devolution deals will only be agreed with county and unitary local authorities, but county councils will be expected to work closely with their area’s district councils.

Deals will not be negotiated with individual councils that are already part of a MCA or in the Greater London Authority area.

3. Flexibility

The devolution framework sets out which powers will be available to areas depending on their governance arrangement.

Devolution deals will also be tailored to each area and their proposals, so two areas with the same governance model won’t necessarily have the exact same deal.

The devolution framework is not fixed – it will be updated over the coming months and years as the Government begins deal discussions with local areas.

4. Appropriate accountability

The Government will create a new independent body in England to collect and share data on the quality of local service delivery, organisational efficacy and area variation. This is intended to support evidence-based decision-making at national and local levels.

It will also finalise a new accountability framework before signing off devolution deals in England. This framework will:

  • set out the roles and responsibilities of organisations involved in a devolution deal
  • publish metrics for the public to make comparisons between areas with devolution deals
  • and ensure there are appropriate forums for local media, councillors and residents to scrutinise the performance of organisations delivering a deal.

Who is getting a new devolution deal?

The Government is inviting nine areas to enter negotiations for county deals. These are:

  • Cornwall
  • Derbyshire & Derby
  • Devon
  • Plymouth and Torbay
  • Durham
  • Hull & East Yorkshire
  • Leicestershire
  • Norfolk
  • Nottinghamshire & Nottingham
  • Suffolk

It aims to agree many of these deals by autumn 2022.

The Government will also enter discussions with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the West Midlands Combined Authority on developing “trailblazer deeper devolution deals.”

These will bolster the devolution settlements that already exist in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands and serve as a blueprint for further devolution for current and future MCAs.

The Government will also progress negotiations to agree a mayoral combined authority deal with York and North Yorkshire and an expanded mayoral combined authority deal for the North East.

Other local authorities that are undergoing reorganisation, such as those in Cumbria, will have the chance to negotiate a similar deal to York and North Yorkshire’s.

Finally, in accordance with the white paper’s mission, any area of the country that wants a devolution deal will have the chance to negotiate one by 2030.

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