Over recent years there has been a lot of talk about devolution, those who keep up with the news will know various deals have been agreed across England and might even be aware that Sussex and Surrey councils are seeking their own deal. Yet, most people, including those in local government, don’t necessarily have a clear idea of what devolution is beyond that it’s something to do transferring power and money out of the centre, and possibly involves a mayor.
Devolution isn’t new to the UK. Councils themselves are an example of where government has delegated decision-making power for an area to another body. Until 1972 Northern Ireland had its own Parliament and the last Labour Government created new institutions for governing Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
For a long time the Greater London Authority was England’s only recent example of significant devolution—providing a new strategic tier above London’s councils—and the London Mayor’s power remains unrivalled by subsequent deals. It is Manchester which represents the model of devolution others now seek to follow. Building on years of inter-authority working, Greater Manchester’s councils came together to form a combined authority—made possible by legislation Labour passed in 2009—and over successive rounds of negotiation they’ve secured control over most of the public money spent within their sub-region, enabling them design more efficient local services.
These combined authorities are essentially councils of councils, operating at a scale which makes it possible for local areas to adopt responsibilities beyond what individual authorities could manage. Combined authorities employ few direct staff of their own, instead they provide overall co-ordination between existing councils in delivering these new responsibilities for the area.
The deal currently sought for Sussex and Surrey is ambitious. Rather than focusing on new powers it seeks to tackle our infrastructure deficit by providing a vehicle through which some of the proceeds of local growth which currently go to central government are instead re-invested in meeting our existing and future infrastructure needs. If done right, this could be great for Crawley, but as ever the Devil will be in the detail.