The evolution of devolution… where will it lead?

Peter Ware, Browne Jacobson

As the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act becomes law, the doors to the biggest shake-up of local government in decades are officially open.

Not only does the Act provide the framework for devolution (or decentralisation) of powers from central to local government, it also enables the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to fast-track structural or boundary changes for two-tier councils, even without unanimous consent of the councils affected. Local authorities have until 2019 to submit their proposals for reorganisation in a pilot process which was introduced at a very late stage in the Bill’s progress through Parliament.

With the pressure of the four year financial settlement to consider, many local authorities are already considering reorganisation. New powers introduced by the Act allow district councils to join or leave a combined authority without requiring consent from its county council. It also removes the veto previously held by district councils where the county council intends to join or leave a combined authority. Meanwhile, in the never-ending search for savings, many local authorities are reviewing their existing two-tier structure against the perceived efficiencies of a unitary council. Dorset is reportedly considering abolishing its district and county councils and creating a single, pan-Dorset unitary authority providing local services for the whole area. Nottinghamshire, despite progressing towards a combined authority with Derbyshire, known as North Midlands CA, recently rejected a controversial proposal create a unitary authority.

Existing combined authorities which submitted their devolution proposals last year are now moving towards implementing the deals. Greater Manchester Combined Authority will ‘go live’ from April this year when it becomes the first region to take full control over a £6 billion integrated health and social care budget. Negotiations are underway for the creation of further combined authorities as the remaining local authorities work out where their allegiances lie and more devolution deals are expected in the coming year.

The general public does not yet appear to have woken up to the changes that are on the way, probably because little information is yet available about the deals themselves or the extent of the powers that will transfer to combined authorities. But one thing that is certain is the Government’s sheer determination to transform the public sector landscape and rid itself of the much-repeated claim that Britain is the most centralised state in Europe. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act gained Royal Assent with barely a murmur in the mainstream news, yet in the not-too distant future we are likely to see ‘metro mayors’ across England, possibly local government reorganisation with larger unitary councils, and the creation of powerful regional institutions controlling functions such as transport and health budgets initially, but with the option to take on any function of a local authority in future.