Andrew Laird is a founder and Director of Mutual Ventures.
If you can free some headspace from the media noise surrounding this election, you will have noticed that the Conservative manifesto sets out some really important and bold policies. The intention to push on with devolution to elected mayors and combined authorities in England is prominent. For the media, this isn’t as newsworthy as trapping politicians into getting their figures wrong – but, in the real world, devolution is hugely significant in terms of how this prospective Government would do business.
With Brexit rightly occupying many of the best and brightest civil servant minds in central government, devolution offers a genuine opportunity for local areas to drive public service reform in a way that suits their local needs. This willingness to allow bespoke local ideas was a feature of David Cameron’s Government, and it looks set to continue if and when Theresa May wins her own mandate.
So far, deals have been struck in nine places, including the seven areas (including London) that now have elected mayors.
The Greater Manchester and the West Midlands deals are among the most ambitious in terms of “people” services such as health and social care. Greater Manchester is the first to get control of its entire NHS budget, and it will fascinating to see whether this will lead to the proper integration of NHS and council commissioned social care service. This is a noble ambition, as anyone who has ever tried to navigate the transition between the NHS and social care will know. Although Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester does not currently have formal control of the devolved NHS budget, the other elected mayors will be watching this ambitious experiment with interest.
The Conservative manifesto makes clear that it wants to both develop these existing devolution relationships and encourage them elsewhere. This could be a double-edged sword for central government, and I have previously warned on this site that elected mayors in the North West could block public service reform.
I’m sure that Ministers have had this in mind, but there is no doubt that the success of Conservatives in four out of the six metro mayor races in May (and in particularly Andy Street in the West Midlands) has influenced the strength of the commitment in the manifesto. However, there is the interesting caveat in that it reserves the right to decide “what devolution means for different administrations” – which I take as an indication that the Government will properly assess competence and political stability when agreeing levels of devolved power.
Under Cameron and George Osborne, there was a general rule that substantial devolved power had to be accompanied by a commitment to a directly elected mayor. Cornwall has been the exception to the rule in achieving a significant devolution deal without a commitment to an elected mayor – but Cornwall has always been quite self-sufficient, with coterminous boundaries for most major public services.
County councils, particularly rural counties, who have begun the process of exploring a devolution deal have been very uncomfortable about the idea of a single elected mayor. The County Councils Network has been very vocal in its opposition. The idea just just doesn’t fit with the county council culture, and the long-established ways in which they do business. All the more reason to do it, some might say – let’s shake the tree a little – but there are good practical reasons why a single mayor is best suited to urban areas. In our work with councillors and officers in county councils, the one thing we heard more than anything else was “We do not want an elected mayor forced on us”. There was a very clear message that progress on devolution would stall until this requirement was removed.
Well, the Government has heard that message and alongside the ambition to have more elected mayors for urban areas it is dropping this requirement for rural counties seeking increased devolved power. This is excellent news, and will surely act as a shot in the arm for devolution, which (the excitement of mayoral races aside) had been slumbering.
The challenge now will be whether groups of county councils can demonstrate that they can handle the administrative and political challenges that devolution brings without a single, democratically elected figurehead. I don’t see why not. Some neighbouring counties already have a solid history of working together. Groupings like “Greater Lincolnshire” and the “Heart of the South West” (which includes Devon, Somerset, Plymouth and Torbay) already share a Local Enterprise Partnership and collaborate with each other on a regular basis. These areas, and others like them, should now press on for a full devolution deal.
I just hope Brexit hasn’t monopolised all the good central government negotiators, and that there are a few left at CLG to allow these deals to proceed at pace.