We need a real devolution deal


Devolution is a great opportunity.  After years of oppressive centralisation, devolution deals offer local and combined authorities a chance to break free and forge their own distinctive economic and social destiny.

Devolution is not, however, without significant risks and challenges. Our new joint paper ‘The Real Deal: Pushing the parameters of devolution deals’, a collaboration between the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI), explores the restrictions in the current devolution agenda, and presents ideas for new types of deals, heralding a more progressive devolution.

For us it is increasingly clear that present devolution – while a unique opportunity – is flawed. The deals may have started to reverse some of the problems of over-centralisation, but devolution in its current form is too constrained by the Treasury’s economic and social model, and cowed by ongoing austerity, in which the poorest areas have suffered the most.  As a result, devolution has been shaped by a limited deal-making process of narrow negotiations with Whitehall, making it stacked in favour of Whitehall and limited in terms of what it deems important.

As such, the ability of local authorities to think and act progressively has been squeezed. What we need instead is a new devolution settlement between central and local government that empowers local areas to forge their own answers to the challenges they face. We need a real deal.

This publication starts to think through what real devolution deals could look like and how they could potentially herald a progressive and enduring social, economic, democratic and environmental future.

‘We need a new devolution settlement that empowers local areas to forge their own answers to the challenges they face’

In our report we outline eleven ideas for further devolution deals and make recommendations for employment policy, transport, energy and environmental policy, housing and land use, health, procurement, local banking, higher education, lottery funding and the democratic process.

Each of these recommendations are grounded within an overarching framework for devolution, which advocates a phased programme of devolution alongside wider organisational reforms, such as the relocation of core departmental functions away from Whitehall.

Across all our recommendations the need to empower local decision-making is key. We advocate comprehensively devolving the design and delivery of employment support provision to the local level, as we believe that local government is best placed to understand both the supply and demand factors within local labour markets. The substantial devolution of transport powers is also essential, alongside the integration of the strategic transport powers and funding currently exercised by other bodies. The institution of these powers at regional level will be the key to progress, with the first step being to renationalise the UK’s rail network under a regional accountability structure.

We also advocate the same principles in addressing challenges within the housing sector, where we propose devolving planning, delivery and funding powers from the Department of Communities and Local Government to councils, in order to address local housing shortages. To make this happen, we also recommend that Right to Buy be reconsidered. This will ensure that all property sale receipts go straight to councils and housing associations, rather than to central government, enabling them to build one-for-one replacements for sold properties.

In the case of health and social care, we go further, and propose that a fairer devolution deal must be struck, providing more money for devolved health services. We recommend that no further devolution of health and social care should take place until there is an easing of NHS and local government austerity. Such a change would provide a more fertile context, in which devolved health and social care is able to effectively integrate and thereby increase the likelihood of better health outcomes.

These ideas go with the grain of existing devolution deals, but also seek to broaden their scope and significantly push the parameters toward a more progressive and ambitious devolution agenda. We do not claim to be offering a comprehensive manifesto for how to do devolution in England, and some of these ideas will have greater relevance in some localities than others.

More voracious thinking and action will be required if devolution is to be turned into a genuinely progressive agenda – but we can only start from where we are now. As such, we offer these recommendations in the hope of providing food for thought for those responsible from taking devolution from rhetoric to reality, and to provide a progressive glimpse, into what we should aim for.

The original article can be read on the NewStart website here