Primary legislation should be introduced to protect the independence of local government, according to a report published on Monday by the Inquiry into Better Devolution.
The inquiry, chaired by former head of the civil service Lord Bob Kerslake, was established by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Reform, Decentralisation and Devolution to look at how to achieve better achieve devolution across the whole of the United Kingdom.
The report raised concerns about the scope of devolution deals to date, and called on public servants at all levels of government to “establish a new understanding of accountability, with citizens looking to local leadership first, and central government second”.
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“At a political level, devolution can only succeed if the electorate perceive a shift in accountability from national politicians to local,” said the report. “The temptation for central government to step in when something goes wrong at a local level must be resisted if we are to see this shift occur. There needs to be a new legal basis for the independence of local government, made through primary legislation.”
The inquiry heard from witnesses that not all parts of government are fully engaged with the drive to devolve powers to regions, and that the focus on growth is limiting the scope of devolution deals.
“It was put to us that despite the apparent open door attitude of the government, in practice there has been greater engagement from some government departments than others; a notion of so-called ‘no go’ areas was raised.
“There was also consensus that far from bespoke negotiations, the deals done to date are somewhat template arrangements with little room for variability, the overriding focus being on growth.”
Successful devolution will need reform across “all of the UK civil service”, the inquiry found.
It said change must happen on two levels: the development of a more equal partnership between central and local government; and a shift in Whitehall’s function to play “an agile, more strategic role” as more services are delivered locally.
The report calls for government’s annual report on the progress of devolution – introduced through the Cities and Local Governance Act 2016- should “include a standing item on the implications for civil service reform.”