The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill establishes a formal framework for the concept of bespoke devolution ‘deals’ with local areas. Leaving aside whether more profound constitutional change would have been desirable – touched on in previous posts, An enabling bill – but what does that really mean? and The Queens’ Speech – it is clear that the Bill offers a serious opportunity for more localities to secure decentralised powers and responsibilities. However, it is also clear that the continuation of the ‘deal’ approach keeps the onus on local partners to demonstrate how devolution can drive public service improvements, economic growth and fiscal benefits. Simply invoking subsidiarity will not be sufficient; devolution, in short, must be seen to have a point.
Thus far, the main arguments deployed for devolution – most successfully by Greater Manchester – hinge on the potential of place-based working to address complex or intractable problems: supporting families with complex needs to become more resilient, helping people experiencing long-term unemployment into work, reducing the ‘skills gap’, integrating health and social care. Through the integration and coordination of different services and budgets across organisational and professional siloes, it is posited, localities can create more coherent and human ‘customer journeys’, improving the effectiveness of state expenditure in achieving outcomes and reducing the need for state intervention.
This argument has a crucial intuitive appeal, contrasting the remote Whitehall machine with the human-scale ways of working and relationships which the city-region can supposedly deliver. However, it has limitations. The integration narrative is underpinned by a tacit assumption that everyone wants to achieve similar outcomes, even if we disagree about how to get there or some of us are slower to realise it than others. The challenge is to realign different incentive and performance frameworks and ways of working to reflect this shared interest. But how about an area of policy where everyone’s interests do not align?