Whitehall getting more used to English devolution – top DCLG official

Tom Walker – who heads cross-government cities and local growth team – hails "ever closer integration" and close support of the Treasury as ministers press ahead with devolution drive

By Civil Service World

07 Mar 2016

Whitehall is getting more adept at working across departments as a result of the government's drive to hand more powers to city regions, a senior official helping to oversee the devolution agenda has said.

The first "devolution deal" was struck by the government and the new Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2014, with the region set to gain a range of new education, transport, welfare and housing powers in exchange for bringing in a directly elected mayor.

Further deals have since been struck with eight more areas, including the Sheffield City Region, Tees Valley and the North Midlands.

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A report published by the Institute for Government (IfG) earlier this year said that while the latest devolution push had benefited from "strong, clear political leadership" – with the full clout of the Treasury behind it – the "opaque" nature of the negotiations between central and local government meant it was sometimes unclear what powers were up for grabs.

The Treasury has repeatedly stressed that it does not want to limit the new responsibilities that city regions are able to take on.

But the IfG has pointed out that many of the deals are strikingly similar, saying: "If Whitehall had clarified some of these unwritten rules and expectations in advance, it may have avoided wasting the precious time and effort of local areas asking for devolution in policy areas that they were never going to get."

Speaking at an IfG-organised event on London on Monday, Tom Walker – who leads the Cities and Local Growth team working across both the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – rejected calls for a more rigid approach from central government.

"There's a deal-making at the heart of devolution, which I think gives rise to some [...] questions about complexity, about accountability," he said.

"But deal-making necessarily means a conversation is place-based, it can be informal, and it's a way of our ministers achieving, for places, what the places say they want to achieve themselves. I think most people would recognise the universal, target-driven approach had reached its zenith and I think run out of road."

And Walker said that while central government departments still had "a little way to go" in getting used to devolution, he believed they were beginning to employ a "place-based" approach rather than thinking strictly in terms of their own policy areas.

"I head a joint team... running a two department team is an interesting thing, because the Whitehall systems don't talk to each other especially well and we have to make that work every day from the policy integration and accountability [perspective].

"Despite being a director, I still have to walk to the printer and plug into the printer with a cable because I'm not on the BIS IT system in DCLG. So Whitehall integration has a little way to go.

"But part of this is a shift to a place-based focus. We've brought two departments together and we work incredibly closely with the Treasury and I think people from other departments would recognise that ever-greater integration."

"There's no great mystique"

That view was echoed by the Treasury's Will Garton, who as deputy director of local government and public service reform at the finance ministry oversees talks between central government and regional representatives seeking new powers.

Garton acknowledged that there was some level of "confusion" about the process of striking a deal.

"But actually it's not that complicated," he added. "There's no great mystique – if you're a bit of local government that wants a devolution deal start with BIS Local and have a look at a deal that's been done to date and we can get cracking. Because there's no bit of the country that's off-limits or where we aren't interested in your proposals."

Garton said the devolution negotiations that had worked best had been those where regions had approached central government with a "specific" set of proposals for the powers they wanted to take on.

"Quite often we get proposals that say 'We want to empower place X to grow the economy, get more people in work, have health, happiness, prosperity, a clean environment, happiness for all, forever more.' Which is great, we all want that...

He added:  "I'm sorry to be bureaucratic but we need to translate these things into orders, written by parliamentary counsel where there's no room for indecision – and nor should be there be. If there's indecision then you lose accountability and this is serious stuff. So trying to make proposals as specific as possible – that budget, that power or that policy area. That works really well."

He also stressed the need for "trust and cooperation" between Whitehall and regional authorities, with both urged to "get out of their comfort zones" and take part in "honest, candid conversation" about the potential benefits and pitfalls of devolution.

"I've talked to people on part of these deals where I've clearly trusted my opposite number to go back to their authority and understand my perspective and try and move things on a bit," he said.

"And then I've also read a so-called version of what I said in [trade title] the Local Government Chronicle the next day. And I've thought, 'that's not quite right, you've misintepreted me'.

"That doesn't help anyone because then trust is lost and there needs to be that relationship, partly because the places with which we do deals – once we've done a deal that's not the end of it... We see a lot of them and so maintaining the relationship is really important, as well as getting off on the right foot."

DCLG's permanent secretary Melanie Dawes told CSW recently that she felt there was now "very much a sense of one team between us and the Treasury to strike deals with local areas on behalf of government as a whole".

And she said senior civil servants had begun to view devolution as an opportunity to change the way they work.

"Departments like BIS, Transport, Health and Education are already a long way down the track in thinking through in very imaginative ways the new opportunities that devolution brings," she said.

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