We urgently need a fresh approach to devolution

October 9, 2020  |  By Adam Lent

Amid doubts about the government’s plans for a devolution white paper, Adam Lent outlines three principles to guide a new approach to reform.

There is a case for local government reorganisation. There is a case for devolution. But there is no case for making one dependent on the other.

Having died a slow death after five years under the Cameron administration, the government’s resurrected plans to strike a nationwide set of devo deals have not even emerged from the cradle before succumbing to the common ailments of delay, confusion and exhaustion. But then it was always odd policy to take two things that the government consistently says are urgent and vital to the health and wellbeing of the nation and then make each the obstacle to achieving the other.

The importance of getting beyond the artificial impasse of ‘no devo without reorganisation and no reorganisation without devo’ has never been clearer. The Covid pandemic has highlighted what a complex nation we are – attempts by the government to develop centralised, one-size-fits-all responses to the crisis have been, quite frankly, disastrous. In truth, the last few months have simply revealed in stark and accelerated form how Westminster and Whitehall have spent decades weakening the country and dissolving trust in democracy in the name of central control.

“There is a case for local government reorganisation. There is a case for devolution. But there is no case for making one dependent on the other.”

What is urgently required now is a fresh approach to decentralisation and reorganisation based on three fundamentally different principles.

Community power not technocratic pipe dreams

The first of these is to be clear that the purpose of both devolution and reorganisation is to empower communities to have greater control over their own areas. The government may have used the rhetoric of empowerment but this was always a fig leaf for what was really a technocrat’s pipe dream: to establish new tiers of government based on ‘functional economic geographies’ to supposedly deliver growth and productivity to the regions. The automatic link between combined authorities or unitary councils and genuinely empowered communities was always hard to discern.

With remarkable timing, an important report commissioned by No 10 itself emphasising the importance of community power was published just as the news dripped out that the government’s devo deal train was chugging into the policy sidings. Inspired by the work of New Local and others, the review by Danny Kruger MP (Con) makes clear that genuinely empowering communities is vital if we are to reduce demand on public services, develop resilience, rebuild trust, and ‘level up’ those areas that have been struggling economically for decades.

“The government may have used the rhetoric of empowerment but this was always a fig leaf for what was really a technocrat’s pipe dream.”

Kruger’s work provides a powerful intellectual basis for a programme of devolution and reorganisation with some real energy behind it. Could it also help convince his peers in Westminster that if there are to be strings attached to devolution these should be tied to community power – requiring local authorities to work in partnership with their residents, giving people a meaningful say over the services they use and the places in which they live?

Loss not reward

One of the abiding flaws of the devo deal approach is its reliance on the promise of a vague reward of extra powers and money in return for councils jumping through a long course of restructuring hoops designed to improve collaboration. However, as any behavioural scientist will tell you the promise of reward is a far weaker incentive for behaviour change than the threat of loss.

If Whitehall genuinely fears that devolved powers and resources will be wasted as councils fail to work together, then a much more effective route to collaboration would be to devolve now to the existing structures with the proviso that should councils in a region fail to co-operate then those powers will be removed within a certain timeframe. Whether that collaboration necessarily means full restructuring or more informal co-ordination is a discussion to be had elsewhere. But one thing is abundantly clear, such an approach would deliver much speedier and widespread devolution and collaboration than the sputtering, partial attempts under the devo deal approach.

“a unitary with a hide-bound, brittle, siloed culture would be better than a two-tier system made up of collaborative, outward-facing councils”

Culture before structure

Finally, reorganisation needs to be about creating new organisational cultures not simply new organisations. I have been director of New Local for four years now. In that time, I have had hundreds of conversations with senior councillors and officers in local government about what makes for organisational impact. I cannot think of one successful figure who has told me that the key to their achievement was restructuring. Impactful leaders know – backed up by considerable academic evidence – that organisations succeed because the people who work there have the right mindsets, values and behaviours.

And yet the principle informing local government reorganisation runs completely counter to this. No one in Whitehall has ever seemed to ask themselves whether, for example, a unitary with a hide-bound, brittle, siloed culture would be better than a two-tier system made up of collaborative, outward-facing councils. It’s a question that remains unasked probably because the answer is obvious.

Restructuring can work but it needs to be the outcome, or at least the bedfellow, of deep culture change that drives real collaboration and allows communities to lead.

Underpinned by these three principles we could have a process of decentralisation and reorganisation far speedier, wider and more impactful than that dreamed up by the mandarins of Whitehall. Given the vast challenges facing the country in this era of unending crisis, that is precisely what we need.

This article was originally published in the Local Government Chronicle.