Institute for Government highlights local concerns over Whitehall’s role in devolution agenda

Think tank report says lack of guidance from central government and Whitehall capacity issues have frustrated local leaders’ efforts to take on more powers

By Jim Dunton

28 Jan 2016

The government’s processes for striking devolution deals with city regions has been “opaque” and left many local areas without the degree of Whitehall support they expected, according to a new report.

A guide to successful deal-making, just published by the Institute for Government, praised the opportunities presented by the devolution agenda, and the effort put in by both central and local government. 

But Making Devolution Deals Work said that a reluctance on the part of central government to expressly state what freedoms were on offer to city regions, and to spell out the level of Whitehall support available to local areas, had been a source of wasted effort among some deal-seeking local areas.

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The IfG said “compressed” timescales for the latest agreements, put together between the May 2015 general election and September’s deadline for Spending Review submissions, had resulted in insufficient time for local areas to develop “credible and deliverable proposals” in partnership with key stakeholders, such as businesses and community groups. 

The guide also said that many local areas reported that they had found it “extremely hard to engage with particular Whitehall departments and teams” as part of the deal process, and that there had been “reports that departments could not cope with the volume of work required to respond to all the devolution proposals submitted in September”.

IfG programme director and report co-author Jo Casebourne said the report clearly identified areas where further work was necessary to ensure that future devolution deals were struck in a sustainable manner.

“There have been many attempts to devolve powers in the past, but now with strong political leadership from the chancellor, this is the best chance we have at seeing it actually happen,” she said.

“While the ‘devolution revolution’ presents opportunities, there are several specific challenges for those responsible for carrying it out.”

The report said that without the continued involvement of the Treasury as a “powerful champion” for the deals process in Whitehall, there was a risk agreements would “become watered down and ineffective”.

It also said central government departments needed “a degree of internal clarity” over what “good devolution looks like”, adding that it was not clear what that such conversations had taken place.

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