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Devolution Deals: informal governance or a pig’s breakfast?

Devolution Deals: informal governance or a pig’s breakfast?

🕔10.Mar 2016

As the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) proudly announces that the seventh and last of the “original” local authorities has formally agreed to become a member, Chris Game from the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies looks at the state of devolution. 

Paul Dale’s recent marking of the approximate first birthday of the WMCA – aka the West Midlands Metropolitan Leaders’ Mates Club – was as caustic as it was celebratory. With good reason.

From the Mates’ ludicrously misconceived idea of trying to bargain with Chancellor George Osborne over having an elected metro mayor, through the claim (denied by the Treasury) that their devolution proposals were uniquely to be treated as state secrets, to the half-hearted and loaded ‘consultation’ exercise, it’s not been a record likely to generate unbridled enthusiasm for the promised exciting new era of devolved governance.

It was nice to learn recently that Warwickshire County Council is reconsidering its previous decision not to join the club as non-constituent members, but it’s not immediately obvious what’s prompted the possible change of mind.

Locally, even in areas like the West Midlands with up-and-nearly-running CAs and agreed ‘devolution deals’, most of the public haven’t even heard of them. Elsewhere, deals are stalling and councils changing allegiances.

And nationally, despite swift enactment of the key legislation, Government policy changes apparently by the week. Just at present, therefore, English devolution looks a mess.

Or, rather, it could look a mess to the average attentive citizen lacking the training, insight and jargon – sorry, specialist linguistic sophistication – of the academic political scientist.

As it happens, I’m one of those, and recently some of my mates – or, more precisely, a Political Studies Association Research Commission – completed an evaluation of the devolution deals negotiated between the Treasury and various CAs.

They were underwhelmed. Echoing previous reports from a Commons committee and the Institute for Government, they found a process lacking meaningful guidance, clarity and transparency, with no explicit, let alone assessable, objectives, and negotiations that were “informal, often secret [and] apparently haphazard” (p.6).

That average attentive citizen might describe it as a make-it-up-as-you-go-along pig’s breakfast. The academic commissioners, however, perceived “a particularly high degree of informal governance” (p.4).

Nice euphemism, isn’t it? Much more refined than the ‘sofa government’ or ‘misgovernment’ – “New Labour’s tools of trade” – that are savaged in Tom Bower’s new, unsubtly titled, biography of Tony Blair, Broken Vows.

As academics, the commissioners were slightly more nuanced than Bower. Some informal governance, they emphasised, is good.  Less reliant on bureaucracy and formal structures, it can be the oil that keeps the system functioning.

Even they reckoned, though, that delivering devolution deals “solely through informal governance” (p.6, their emphasis) is simply bad government, damaging to the policy’s democratic legitimacy and sustainability.

Ministers insist their devolution deals, based on bids from voluntary partnerships of local authorities, are ‘bottom-up’ and ‘bespoke’. But in what the commissioners acknowledge as “one of the most centralised states in Europe” (p.4), this fools no one.

This devolution is unambiguously top-down – conceived, defined and orchestrated by Chancellor George Osborne (tough cop), managed by the Treasury, and assisted by ministers like Communities Secretary, Greg Clark (supposedly tender cop).

So does the commissioners’ critical verdict absolve our local council leaders of all responsibility for their handling of the devolution process? In short, NO.

As Paul’s blog recalled, in negotiating the WMCA deal, approved by Birmingham city councillors last week, the Mates Club made mistakes of their own. They misread the tricky hand they’d been dealt, and tried unsuccessfully to overplay it. And what’s more, at least some of them are still doing it.

To read in Paul’s report of last Tuesday’s council meeting that former leader and key WMCA architect, Sir Albert Bore, was still claiming the WM’s devolution deal as “the best in the country” was embarrassing. It wasn’t, isn’t, and never could be.

A year ago, as WMCA was unveiling its draft constitution, the ten Greater Manchester councils had had an operational CA for nearly four years. And their leaders had already negotiated with George Osborne, who usefully also happens to be a local MP, not one but two devolution deals.

They’ve since agreed two further deals, assembling a package covering a considerably greater range of services – including a £6 billion health and social care budget – and greater financial discretions than, as can be easily checked, any other CA can seriously contemplate.

The reality is that Greater Manchester, with its exceptionally compact geography, its 10 councils’ 40-year history of inter-authority collaboration (as opposed to bickering over everything from their collective name downwards), and a tried, tested and Government-trusted political leadership, has a unique advantage in the devolution stakes, and it’s perverse pretending otherwise.

It also risks understating the genuine credit the Mates deserve for navigating their way through the hazards and hurdles of ‘informal governance’ and securing what Sandwell council leader and WMCA Vice-chair, Cllr Darren Cooper, fairly described as simply “the best deal we could get” for the time being.

The deal also includes, as WMCA Chair and Solihull leader, Cllr Bob Sleigh, likes to emphasise, “the biggest investment package in the country” – although, to put it in perspective, it involves the Government contributing a modest amount more each year to a fund covering a population a lot larger than any other city region CA.

Even with such qualifications, these are real and apparently solid achievements. And lest there be any doubt, check out developments elsewhere, as ministers tear up the rule book they never had and confirm what some suspected all along – that, certainly outside the cities, much of this bottom-up devolution stuff was actually about kick-starting moves towards reorganisation and unitarisation.

In the past few weeks alone, devolution deals in Hampshire, Cumbria, and the North Midlands (Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire) have stalled over, among other issues, elected mayors and drop-out councils; Greater Essex is splitting into an urban south and more rural north, as may Hampshire.

East Anglia councils are told by Greg Clark to go large – that a Norfolk/Suffolk deal is out and only a 3-county, 23-council bid with Cambridgeshire is acceptable; Oxfordshire, however, is encouraged by one of its MPs, a certain David Cameron, to go small, by dismantling the county into district-scale unitaries overlapping into Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire; and Lancashire districts are wondering if he’ll back a similar move oop North.

A welcome questioning of traditional geographies and established practices unleashed by informal governance? Or a pig’s breakfast? Take your pick.

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