By Steven McGinty
On Wednesday 21st October, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill reached the Committee Stage for consideration by the House of Commons. The Bill, which was initially introduced in the House of Lords, provides statutory authority for the devolution of powers to local areas. The Local Government Association (LGA) has described it as an ‘enabling Bill’ – as very few of the policy areas covered in devolution agreements are mentioned.
Yet its technical nature has not deterred debate. Whitehall, local government, and a host of other interested parties have all sought to shape the Bill, and the devolution agenda.
So, what are the main elements of the Bill?
The Bill makes a number of proposals, including that:
- Ministers will have to make a statement demonstrating that all new domestic legislation is compatible with the principles of devolution;
- Elected mayors can be introduced for combined authority areas, and can be given the functions of Police and Crime Commissioners (although this is not mandatory);
- Powers can be transferred from public body functions to combined authorities;
- There should be requirements for combined authorities to be scrutinised and audited;
- Powers should exist to transfer public functions to certain local authorities, and to fast track changes to their government structures.
Which devolution deals have already been agreed?
The Government has received 38 bids, including four from Scotland and Wales. The first devolution deal was the Greater Manchester Agreement on the 3rd November 2014. Since then, a number of other deals have been agreed, including the Sheffield City Region Agreement on Devolution (12th December 2014), the Cornwall Devolution Deal (16 July 2015), and Tees Valley Devolution Agreement (23 October 2015).
However, a number of agreements are still under discussion. For instance, the Liverpool City Region bid is seeking power over a large range of areas, including the creation of a Land Commission and a development corporation, EU structural funds, and retention of business rates. They are also considering introducing an elected mayor.
The Bill currently before the House of Commons states that elected mayors should not be a condition of further devolution. Nevertheless, the government have linked a full transfer of powers to a directly-elected mayor. In May 2015, the Chancellor, George Osborne, argued that:
“It’s right people have a single point of accountability: someone they elect, who takes the decisions and carries the can. “
However, in the same speech, the Chancellor also suggested that he would “not impose this model on anyone”.
Some, though, would argue that the Chancellor’s approach is closer to the first statement. For instance, a group of North East MPs have challenged Ministers to “just be honest” and admit that they forced the North East Combined Authority to accept an elected mayor. Interestingly, Durham County Council, a member of the North East Combined Authority, is set to allow residents to vote on the new deal. Yet, even if the public voted against the deal, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill provides that the Communities Secretary has the power to eject a combined authority member, and continue with the deal.
Similarly, it’s been reported that the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has explicitly told Suffolk and Norfolk that they would need a directly-elected mayor if they want major powers to be devolved.
The LGA has recently suggested that the government should look to identify alternatives to directly-elected mayors.
Health and social care devolution
During the debates, concerns have been raised over whether devolving health services would mean that health services would no longer be subject to national standards. In the House of Lords, Baroness Williams attempted to clear this up, explaining that services would still be part of the NHS and the social care system and national standards would apply.
However, this led to Lord Warner questioning how ‘devolved’ health services would really be. Chris Ham, Chief Executive of the Kings Fund, also stated that:
“The unanswered question is how much freedom public sector leaders will have to depart from national policies in taking greater control of NHS resources.”
He suggested that this issue would need to be worked on.
Will the Bill bring devolution to English regions?
The great advantage of the Bill is that it provides flexibility for local areas to negotiate their own devolution deal. But, as we have seen from already signed agreements, combined authorities may have to agree to terms that are at odds with the local electorate. For example, in 2012 the electorate of Manchester voted against directly-elected mayors. Yet, a couple years later, they became the first combined authority to sign an agreement with the Chancellor.
Some, however, will say that genuine devolution will only be achieved through devolved finances. This has already started to happen with the Chancellor announcing that local authorities will be able to retain business rates.
Overall, though, the devolution journey has just begun. Each local council will make their own arrangements, and will be answerable to their own electorate. Ultimately, it will be for them to decide through the ballot box whether genuine devolution has been delivered.
The Bill will return for further consideration in the House of Commons on 17 November 2015.
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