Government urged to commit to devolution to drive innovation and levelling-up

Written by Tevye Markson and Sam Trendall on 29 June 2022 in News

Think tank report identifies benefits of city mayors, but finds many local officials are frustrated with current interactions with Whitehall

Credit: Pixabay

The government has work to do to prove to local leaders that it is committed to devolution, according to a think tank.

The Institute for Government has published a new report titled How metro mayors can help level up England. The study cites various benefits of devolving powers to mayoral combined authorities (MCA) – of which there are already nine in city regions across England. If London is also include din this list, these mayors represent 41% of the population.

Advantages flagged up by the IfG include the potential for these cities to drive innovation by acting as “policy laboratories” in the areas where they hold devolved powers.

There are also “numerous other examples of mayors engaging with public policy areas outside their formal brief”, with the report pointing to the efficacy of a ‘Coalition for Digital Inclusion’ created during the coronavirus crisis by West Midlands mayor Andy Street.

“[The initiative brought] numerous other examples of mayors engaging with public policy areas outside their formal brief,” the IfG said.

But the report concludes that local officials and politicians often have “frustrating and dispiriting” experiences dealing with central government.

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This has caused local government leaders to have an “instinctive scepticism” about devolution promises, which reduces the chances of constructive cooperation between mayors and ministers, according to the IfG. Central government is encouraged “show that this time things will be different”, when compared with previous devolution initiatives through the years.

This means devolving fuller powers and greater flexibility over spending to metro mayors, the think tank said. 

Its recommendations for government included:

  • Assigning to MCAs responsibility for functions such as skills, transport and green infrastructure
  • Giving metro mayors long-term, flexible funding to allocate in line with local need
  • Enshrining the formal right to request any power that has been devolved elsewhere in England
  • Committing not to reverse or amend the terms of devolution without local consent

For devolution to be accelerated, the IfG says there will also need to be an overhaul in the way the centre of government works and how it engages with mayors and other local leaders. 

Based on private conversations with national, local and devolved government officials and politicians, the report highlights concerns about central government’s dedication to the agenda.

While the IfG said the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and minister Michael Gove “were broadly regarded as sincerely committed to making devolution work”, other parts of central government came in for criticism.

One experienced official told the IfG that “the attitude generally towards devolution in central government is reluctant” and several departments were singled out for criticism by officials and politicians in the report.

This included Manchester mayor Andy Burnham telling the IfG that the Department for Education “does not buy into” the devolution agenda and “sees things being decided top-down when it comes to education”.

There was also criticism of “poor internal joining up” at Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The Department of Work and Pensions, meanwhile, was described as “the dead hand of government when it comes to local partnerships”, and for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was branded “pretty bad on the whole” in its engagement with devolution. HM Treasury was also criticised as being too interventionist, centralising and risk averse, while the Department of Health and Social Care was accused of failing to recognise local government structures effectively.

The Department for Transport was described in positive terms for being “further in the devolution journey than any other department” but there was also criticism that the department “just delay decisions” if they disagree with a devolved proposal.

The IfG also urged government to make good on its plans to gather more and better data on policy interventions by MCAs.

“To capture the benefits of… policy innovation, better collection of data and investment in evaluation of the impact of different interventions is needed,” the report said. “The government’s plans to collect more finely grained local and regional data, announced in the Levelling Up white paper, is a welcome sign of commitment to this agenda.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are working across government to deliver on devolution. Our mission is clear – by 2030 every part of England that wishes to have a ‘London-style’ devolution deal will have one. This will put power into the hands of those best placed to make decisions for their area and supercharge growth across all regions.”


About the author

Tevye Markson is a reporter at PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets as @TevyeMarkson.

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