Devolution chief slams ‘myth’ that Whitehall refuses to engage in localism

Government will be in listening mode once new city region mayors are in place, says growth unit boss

By Richard Johnstone

21 Mar 2017

The director of the government unit overseeing devolution deals in England has said he wants to tackle the “myth” that Whitehall departments are refusing to engage with the process.

Speaking at an event at the Institute for Government yesterday, Tom Walker, the director of the Cities and Local Growth Unit that works with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Communities and Local Government, said a big shift of power was underway in England.

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Six areas in England will elect mayors for city region combined authorities on 4 May: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, the West Midlands and the West of England.

The combined authorities, which are formed across council boundaries to better reflect areas of economic activity, have powers in a range of areas. These cover devolved housing budgets, transport planning powers, and responsibility for skills spending, including localisation of the successor scheme to the Work Programme. Greater Manchester, which was the first combined authority to receive these powers from Whitehall in 2014, also has local control of health spending.

Walker said Whitehall would need to be in “listening mode” once the new city region mayors are in post, but claimed their creation already represented a big shift from the centre.

Local areas must use the elections to “get out of an adversarial relationship [with central government] and into one which is about solving problems”, he said.

“The myth that I think it is not helpful for anyone to sustain is that somehow there is a hermetically-sealed Whitehall refusing to engage, and places knocking on the door.

“That just isn’t the reality. Do places say they want more power, less monitoring and everything else? Of course they do, that tension is there, but I think we’re in a space where there is a pretty mature dialogue about that.”

Walker highlighted that the involvement of local areas in the new Work and Health Programme showed “you can’t paint the Department for Work and Pensions as a naysayer”. The department is often cited by localism campaigners as being among the least willing to let go of power.

While Walker acknowledged that there are differing approaches in central government, he said: “If you look at some of the more topical things in the welfare space, they’re actually building on these deals”.

Greater local control of the adult skills budget represented another example of a significant shift in approach, he said.

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