Sort out the devolution muddle, government told


Government has not made its objectives of devolution clear, it is forcing too much on local authorities from the 'top down' and it is trying to devolve too much too quickly, according to the Public Accounts Committee. In a damning report on the devolution process in England, the House of Commons' PAC also says that many local authorities and enterprise partnerships do not have the resources to cope with the devolution deals they have applied for, and that the demands on central government departments have not been thought through sufficiently.

The Treasury, together with government's Cities and Local Growth Unit – a joint group of officials from the departments for Communities and Local Goverment and Business Innovation and Skills – has so far overseen devolution deals signed with the leaders of authorities from 10 different groupings of county and unitary authorities. Cornwall is the only county council to have been granted a deal on its own. The others have been signed with combined authorities covering areas including Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, the North East and the West Midlands. Other cities to have been granted devolution deals include Sheffield and Liverpool.

There are clear signs that government's devolution plans are unravelling in some areas, as the model that has suited Manchester and other city regions is not working everywhere.

Signing of the agreements for transfer of planning and spending powers does not assure their completion. The deals still need the ratification of agreement from the councils of every local authority member of the combined authorities. Cambridge City and Cambridgeshire County Councils have refused to sign the East of England devolution deal with Norfolk and Suffolk – instead proposing a Cambridgeshire-Peterborough deal. Only six of the seven councils of the North East combined authority have signed its proposed agreement with government.

A total of 38 different different devolution applications or 'prospectuses' have been submitted to government. Most are still waiting for negotiation of how powers over transport, housing and social services spending will be transferred.

According to the PAC report, problems are being caused by government stipulating too many conditions – in contrast to the rhetoric of localism. It is also not doing enough to explain what is and what isn't on offer. Nor is it listening to each area's individual needs and concerns, so falling foul of problems of imposing a 'one size fits all' approach, the PAC says.

The report puts forward a series of recommendations, including a structures assessment of capacity at Local Enterprise Partnerships and combined authorities. The full report can be found here