Why a devolution framework isn’t necessarily a good thing

Posted on December 4, 2017 by Ed Hammond. Tags:

You can’t please some people. For over two years we have been going on (here, and here, and also here ) about the need for Government to be clearer about its objectives for devolution. Without that clarity, we said, it was difficult for local areas to understand what the overall prize of devolution was, and the kind of outcomes that Government expected – they were going in to the negotiation blind. Worse, it encouraged local areas to fixate on second-guessing the Government “line” on a given subject, rather than focusing on local needs.

But now that a framework has been announced – promising just that – here we are, dubiously urging caution.

The Conservatives announced in their manifesto prior to the General Election their plans to produce a “devolution framework”; Sajid Javid expanded on those plans when speaking at the CCN Conference a couple of weeks ago. He said,

“We’re looking at how to design a devolution framework. As promised in our election manifesto it will be a common set of guidelines. Rules that everyone plays by, so that everyone involved in the process – local authorities, businesses, residents – knows where they stand and what is expected of them. Work is still in the early stages – and I’d welcome your support in shaping the final product.

“But I want a framework that, above all else, provides clarity and consistency about what a successful devolution agreement looks like. What standards will need to be met, what outcomes will need delivered, what red lines there are for the whole process. Expectations about leadership, scope and levels of local support. With a clear position on how devolution negotiations should proceed, authorities at all levels will much better placed to develop and put forward proposals that suit the unique needs of their residents and businesses.

“It will help ensure that the right decisions are made at the right levels, so that local people get the services they deserve.”

These plans have received a warm reception from many in the sector. I’m not so sure.

Ironically, the development of a framework could be seen as a marker of Government’s dwindling interest in devolution. For its faults, the process of individual dealmaking conferred some benefits. Its flexibility has meant that, broadly speaking, the onus has been on areas to bring forward proposals

The main problems (as we have seen them) of this approach have been twofold.

The inherent secrecy of the process is one. Let’s open the negotiation up, encourage clarity from both sides. We’ve seen this play out on a supranational stage with the Brexit negotiations, where the UK Government’s refusal to publish information about its red lines and negotiation stance has arguably weakened its hand compared to the more robust transparency of the EU institutions.  

Government’s unwillingness to be drawn out on its overall objectives has been another. Importantly, arguing for Government clarity on objectives is not the same as calling for a structure or process to define how the negotiation will work. The problem is that we are fairly certain that the Government has objectives for devolution (how could it not) but its reticence in making clear what those objectives are make negotiation more difficult.

A framework will help a bit with both of these – but not much.

Firstly, “a framework” is not the same thing as “more transparency”. Government has always strongly resisted calls to open out the devolution negotiation process – there is no evidence that this view has changed. Secondly, a framework is very likely to embed the objectives of Government – it will mean that we will have more clarity on those objectives, but by definition the framework will subordinate the specific and unique interests of local areas.

A framework will, in the worst case, be designed to facilitate an increasingly bureaucratic, technocratic dealmaking process. It will take the politics out of dealmaking – but in a bad way, by railroading local politicians within a system which will look even more like agreements to deliver delegated services on behalf of Government, rather than genuine devolution of power.

They are an indication that Government is losing interest in devolution because a process without a framework required high level input from Ministers and others. A system bound by a framework is designed not to require that input. It makes things more efficient for Whitehall, but will probably frustrate the boldest and most ambitious dealmakers in local government. There will be even less wriggle room for local areas to find, less Ministerial contact and, consequently, less Government buy-in to the final outcome. Deals will increasingly look safe and incremental rather than transformational in scope and nature.

Devolution as we have experienced it hitherto has had its critics (we have been amongst them) but for areas who have identified a prize, it has and will continue to make a difference to local people’s lives. The dealmaking process has been flawed from a democratic – but its flexibility brought opportunities to disrupt traditional methods of working by bringing novel ideas to the table.

Let’s hope that the framework is just that – a light touch statement of Government’s objectives, an indication of the kind of ground rules that will define the negotiation (not too much detail, though) and a commitment to carry out as much as possible of the negotiation in public. That’s our hope anyway. Whether it will come to pass is down to Sajid Javid, and how keen he really is to keep his various predecessors’ promises.

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About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfPS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.