The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill has received Royal Assent.
This Act, which is an enabling Act, now gives the necessary legislative backing for the various devolution deals that have been, and are to be, struck between authorities or regions and Central Government.
With the passing of Royal Assent, James Wharton MP, the Minister for the Department for Communities and Local Government, gave a clear statement of intent, asserting that there ‘is no end point’ to devolution now. It is likely we will see many more devolution deals in the year to come, such as the North Midlands draft deal which is currently awaiting Government approval. Areas that have already struck deals include Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Cornwall Council and West Midlands Combined Authority.
What kind of powers will authorities be receiving?
The Act is not prescriptive as to what ought to be in a devolution deal, and deals can be bespoke to an area’s needs. The deals done so far cover a variety of powers from consolidated transport budgets, powers over strategic planning for housing, greater responsibility over education and employment, and integrated healthcare. The Act’s role is to codify these wider powers as functions of local government.
On the face of it, just about any public function from Government or any other statutory body can be transferred to the local government body (largely new Combined Authorities, but see Cornwall deal). The statute doesn’t depend upon “deals” being done with Government, but that is how it is currently being progressed. Some have argued for a more uniform approach to Devolution and there is nothing in the Act to prevent that happening.
In addition to the transfer of powers to local government, the Act also contemplates local authorities transferring their existing powers to the Combined Authorities. This is not devolution and feels much more like local government re-organisation.
Finally the Act now allows for the creation of Sub-national Transport Bodies, giving statutory force to entities such as Transport for the North, which was conceived to deliver the Northern Powerhouse.
What do local authorities need to be thinking about now?
As Wharton has pointed out, it is clear that we are going to see ‘a change in the way we do local government in this country and that’s very exciting.’ This means that local authorities have a lot to consider. Some may still be unsure about bidding for devolved powers, and perhaps the issue of a mayor may put some areas off. The Act provides for a power which removes councils that object to a mayor from that combined authority for the sake of not preventing a possible devolution deal from going ahead. However, Wharton asserts that it isn’t to say that no deal will be done without a mayor, and we have seen that such a deal is possible, demonstrated by Cornwall’s devolution deal which successfully negotiated a raft of new, devolved powers but no mayor.
With the Act now on the statute book, further devolution deals in negotiation and the anticipated changes to the control of business rates, 2016 is already set to be a year of great change for local authorities and the public sector.