Oh dear… I’m wrong again!

Catherine Staite, Director of INLOGOV

When the Devolution/Combined Authority agenda began to gather momentum after the election I saw two key opportunities for local government; to achieve the practical benefits of operating at the right scale to deliver big ticket change and to improve collaboration by drawing in reluctant partners.  Central government’s insistence on ‘metro mayors’ as part of the deal seemed less of an impediment once Greater Manchester had shrugged and said ‘oh, alright then’.  Ever the optimist, I foresaw a range of CA’s operating at different scales and across varied geographies, receiving different devolution deals. How could I have been so self-deluded to imaging that anything so sensible would come to fruition?

So many things – big and small – get in the way.  Osborne’s big ambition is to regain some influence in the cities, particularly in the North, so why would he bother with those untidy two-tier county areas and sub regions riven by petty rivalries?  The success of Cornwall is the exception that proves the rule. It’s both a unitary, which makes it easy for central government to engage with, and chronically deprived so clearly something must be done.

Central government now lacks the skills and capacity to co-produce strong CA arrangements and negotiate more than a handful of effective devolution deals with local government. BIS, DCLG and the Treasury have all poked the CA proposals with their own particular sticks but a few junior civil servants nitpicking their way through agreements that have been hammered out by some of the big beasts of local government, who actually know what they are talking about, doesn’t add much value.

Now the door is closing. If nascent CAs haven’t already ticked all the boxes, it’s too late now.  Even those that looked as if they would make the grade may find they are operating at too small a scale and rapid agglomeration will be the only way to achieve their ambitions – but that’s a big challenge. An East Midlands CA would in involve 47 leaders and nearly as many chief executives – not an optimal number for strategic decision-making.

The small scale and diversity of much of local government, particularly in two tier areas, brings some advantages at a local level but creates enormous barriers to collective action. Local government still struggles to act in concert, to create a strong united front and operate at the right scale.    The reasons for that are many and varied but the three that I observe most frequently can be summed up as deficits in ambition, capacity and diplomacy. Why would a successful district leader reach for a big prize for their region but risk their authority within their group by  appearing to help their rival neighbours?  Local authorities have lost so much capacity – who will do the leg-work to make sense of so much complexity?  How can people who’ve made it their political life’s work to be disagreeable to each other, about matters of mind-numbing triviality, suddenly develop the necessary diplomatic skills to develop a convincing collective narrative?

There are a number of ways local government could overcome those deficits. They could support each other to be collectively more ambitious, they could pool their resources to fill capacity gaps by buying in expertise in the short term and they could set the bar for behaviour a bit higher so that gratuitous vileness becomes  as unacceptable as spitting on the carpet.  Well – it looks like they’ve got four years to do it.  If they don’t, perhaps their residents might feel poorly served when they miss out on the benefits of growth because their local leaders lack the will or the skill to collaborate.

 

Catherine Staite

Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.

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