There's a whiff of purpose once more on devolution

By Jessica Studdert | 17 January 2022

By the time you read this, the Government may or may not have published its long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper. And that document may or may not propose a massive restructuring of local government. Yet one thing is clear: with Gove at the helm of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and levelling up at the heart of the Government’s agenda, there is once more a whiff of purpose about devolution policy that has been lacking in previous years.

But will this renewed drive demonstrate genuine ambition to empower communities? Or will it just rehash old versions of devolution that left established power at Whitehall largely intact? Some new thinking is needed.

Previous devolution policy over-emphasised structural reform and under-recognised the role of organisational culture. Ministers much prefer reforms they can announce – like new mayoral combined authorities or actually combining local authorities. But as the best council leaderships understand well, creating a permissive environment for teams to work with communities as equals has enormous potential to improve people’s lives – from co-designing services to transferring community assets. Simply creating new organisations without regard for how the culture within them can shift relationships with communities risks limiting impact.

It would be refreshing if the Government considered how it contributes to creating a permissive culture for councils to support and sustain community power, instead of imposing financial or regulatory constraints that limit the scope for adapting to local circumstances. This isn’t something you can announce from a podium – but it’s a style of governance that would free up councils to bring ‘government’ much closer to people.

Devolution to date has only made demands of local government. This next phase should address how Whitehall needs restructuring to create a system of governance capable of levelling up, rebalanced towards the regions. While capacity in local government has dwindled since austerity started, it has burgeoned at the centre. Relocating offices is irrelevant – true devolution would actively build local capacity and reduce what has become redundant at SW1.

For levelling up to become meaningful, people need to feel decisions are made closer to them, ideally with their active involvement. This implies a whole new statecraft that reverses our top-heavy Whitehall-led model and creates new opportunities for participation. Devolution should rock the status quo and create a new culture of governance which pushes everyone who currently holds decision-making power out of their comfort zones. 

Jessica Studdert is deputy chief executive of New Local

@jessstud

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Whitehall Devolution Austerity governance New Local Michael Gove DLUHC Levelling up
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