Catherine Staite, Director, INLOGOV
A key theme of the discourse on devolution in recent months has been the thrill of the new, through the creation of new local institutions – combined authorities – and new relationships between central and local government. Some old hands will have noted the similarities with previous ‘resources/powers in return for performance/compliance’ offers such as Local Area Agreements, Multi-Area Agreements and City Deals. Those ventures were characterised by big promises, wearisome competitive processes and few real benefits for local government. Those disappointments were often attributed to the dead hand of Whitehall.
So what is different now? The power dynamic is different. If DCLG tries to drive change it is at the mercy of the Treasury. When the Treasury drives change it happens. The prizes seem bigger too but perhaps the biggest difference is the pace of change. It’s certainly galvanising local authorities into action. Long-standing differences have been overcome and a sense of common purpose established in many areas. Devo deals are being negotiated and agreed at regular intervals.
So what next? Creating a combined authority and signing the deal is merely the end of the beginning. How will these new institutions and changed relationships need to develop over time? Will governance structures conceived in optimism be sufficiently strong and flexible to meet future challenges? How will politicians need to adapt their leadership style to a shared leadership model with the added ingredient of an elected metro mayor? Will the combined authorities withstand changes among the key leaders and chief executives? If one of the leaders runs for mayor will all the others stop speaking to him/her? If the mayor throws their weight about, will all the leaders withdraw their goodwill?
Academics have given significant attention to both the previous waves of change and the implications of the current approach to devolution. There is much evidence to be mined and that will help the key players in combined authorities continue to shape their governance arrangements and manage their challenges. Devolution and all its ramifications has been the hot topic at recent conferences, such as the SOLACE Summit, as well as for the LGC and MJ. However, there have been few opportunities for academics and local authorities to come together to share experiences and intelligence. The pace of change has left little time for reflection but the scale of change demands that key decisions are informed by evidence.
INLOGOV is offering four such opportunities over the next few months, starting on 5th November. These free events are also supported by academics from the Public Services Academy and City REDI, the new economic modelling unit recently established by Birmingham Business School. Our purpose is to enable local authorities to talk to each other about all the critical issues; their experiences of negotiating with central government, of creating an effective approach to shared leadership and of hammering out shared priorities across diverse areas – as well as to take advantage of the insights which research offers about new ways to solve old problems. We hope this sharing of knowledge and experience will help ensure that this latest wave of change really does bring bring significant and lasting benefits for local authorities, their partners and – most importantly – the people they serve.
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.