Devolution deals in “deadlock” – consequences for local digital plans

SUMMARY:

The LGA has warned that billions of pounds worth of economic growth are at risk, as government fails to follow through with devolution deals.

The government’s commitment to handing over more powers to local communities, through a number of promised devolution deals, appears to have stalled, claims the Local Government Association (LGA). Digital investments are expected to form a core part to councils investments under the new powers, but it seems that slow progress is being made.

The LGA has warned that the country is in a “devolution deadlock”, with the no new deals having been announced for 18 months, despite many areas being keen to press forward with negotiations.

Today marks two years since the government deadline for local areas to submit devolution deals, with around 34 proposals having been submitted. Earlier this year, mayoral positions were created in six areas across the UK – including Manchester, Liverpool and Tees Valley – where budgetary powers will be handed over from Whitehall.

However, the LGA claims that is “not the only model of devolution possible and council leaders want to explore further options for the widespread transfer of powers and responsibilities to the whole of England in order to boost the economy and improve people’s lives”.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that a lack of progress coincides with Whitehall’s continued focus on Brexit negotiations and the UK’s exit from the EU.

The LGA states, however, that these devolution deals are even more important if the government is to ensure the whole nation benefits from Brexit.

Cllr Mark Hawthorne, Chairman of the LGA’s People and Places Board, said:

Councils want to see their communities reap the benefits of having greater powers and funding to build more homes, secure the infrastructure essential to economic growth, improve our roads, equip people with the skills they need to succeed and increase access to fast and reliable digital connectivity for all.

But there are concerns that devolution discussions have stalled and opportunities are being missed.

To reignite the devolution process, the Government needs to engage in a debate about appropriate governance arrangements with local areas.

This is fundamental to ensure that the momentum around devolving powers to local areas is not lost and the billions of pounds worth of economic growth, hundreds of thousands of jobs and homes on offer through non-metropolitan devolution deals is not lost with it.

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act also includes a duty on the Secretary of State to provide annual reports to Parliament setting out progress on devolution across England as soon as possible after 31 Match. This year’s report has not yet been published.

The LGA has said today that opportunities for billions of pounds worth of economic growth and hundreds of thousands of new jobs and homes risk ebbing lost as a result of the deadlock.

Chancellor Phillip Hammond is visiting cities in the north of England today to appease concerns that the government has taken the eye off of its devolution commitments and its promise to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’. He will be meeting with three of the new mayors.

Ahead of his visit to Manchester today, Chancellor Hammond insisted that more money than ever was being spent on infrastructure outside of London. He said:

Boosting productivity in the North is at the very heart of the government’s ambition to build an economy that works for everyone.

As we prepare to leave the European Union it is even more important that we support the Northern Powerhouse to reach its full potential.

That’s why we are investing record amounts in infrastructure, and working with metro mayors to encourage growth and create opportunities throughout the North.

Digital priorities

Whilst the LGA’s warning today is focused on the importance of devolution more broadly, it could be argued that the delays could have negative consequences for digital investments in many local areas. A number of organisations, including the LGA itself, have highlighted how digital should be put at the centre of decisions and investments made with new local powers.

For example, in LGA’s Growing Places report, it sets out a number of priorities for devolved areas. For instance, it states that the UK needs to have a highly skilled workforce able to support sectors and embrace new technology. However, at present, 13.5 million people lack digital skills.

As result, it called on the government to put in place a system built around people by devolving power and the associated £10.5 billion national employment and skills funding to groups of councils and combined authorities who can locally commission all services through a single, integrated service.

It adds that changes to the skills system, including new T-levels and Institutes of Technology, are coordinated and work for local people and businesses.

Equally, infrastructure investments shouldn’t be confined to more traditional projects, such as transport. Digital infrastructure, the LGA notes, is critically important – and local powers will allow areas to invest in exactly what they need. The report notes:

To prosper in the digital age, residents and businesses need access to fast and reliable digital connectivity. It is a fundamental pillar of a successful economy, a key driver of growth, a creator of jobs and an enabler of public sector transformation.

Councils are best placed to understand the digital needs of their local areas. They have been at the centre of delivering the Superfast Broadband Programme, having committed over £730 million to extending connectivity to the hardest to reach.

They work with mobile network operators to deploy mobile infrastructure in a way that balances the demand for improved coverage with the protection of the local environment. And they upskill residents, helping them to take part in digital society, receive public services online and succeed in today’s workforce.

Equally, technology lobby group, TechUK, recently put together a number of recommendations for new devolved areas and the recently elected mayors. These included:

Putting in place the right digital leadership

• A Chief Digital and Innovation Champion (CDIC) to be appointed, reporting directly to the Mayor and senior officer of the Combined Authority.
• An Innovation Unit is set-up to work with the CDIC across the city region to foster new partnerships and offer practical support to test new ideas and embed digital across the place.

Becoming a Data Enriched City Region

• A clear commitment from the Mayor to open up data and make decisions based on city wide data.
• An audit of local data assets and city wide data with the aim of creating a city region datastore.

Innovative and Inclusive

• A citizen centric approach should be adopted to ensure policies put users at the heart. The Mayor and their team should work closely with the community to tackle digital exclusion.

A Destination for Talent

• A Digital Skills Task Force to be convened within the first 100 days to agree a skills pipeline and put in place the necessary provisions to meet the needs and demand of the community and employers.

My take

If we agree that local areas know best what they need for local communities, the government needs to follow through on its commitment to hand over more powers – as this does have consequences for future digital plans. The problem is that Brexit is pulling at every resource the government has at the moment and proving to be a very big distraction on other priorities (many of which need to be considered in tangent with the exit from the European Union).

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