Deal or No Deal

5 March 2020

"The UK’s departure from the EU clearly paves way for new opportunity to rethink the way decisions are made in the UK, but is the process of English devolution the answer to ensure the ‘levelling up’ of power and decision making across our regions?"

In December, the Queen’s Speech set out the government’s commitment to giving communities more control over how investment is spent so that they can decide what is best for them. The UK’s departure from the EU clearly paves way for new opportunity to rethink the way decisions are made in the UK, but is the process of English devolution the answer to ensure the ‘levelling up’ of power and decision making across our regions? Will it give local people the means to choose what is best for their communities?

In order to answer this, we first need to consider the UK’s ever-changing political landscape, which some argue toe the line with what has come before – a brief snapshot:

  • Regional Development Agencies, established in 1998 and abolished in 2010
  • Sub-Nation Review as part of the Treasury’s Spending Review (2007)
  • The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act (2009)
  • Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) (2011)
  • City Deals (2011) given to City Regions e.g. Sheffield, West Yorkshire, Birmingham
  • Combined Authorities – Greater Manchester 2011
  • George Obsorne’s Devolution Deals – Combined Authorities (2015)

The above suggests a move away from the mere rhetoric of localism to active devolution of power to different scales of local government. Since the establishment of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2011, there are now 10 Combined Authorities with at least 4 more proposed – sounds positive.

However, in order to secure a deal, Osborne (2014) said ‘a Combined Authority must have a Mayor and must be set up by two or more local authorities’ and this is where it can get complicated. The 'North East' was represented by the North East Combined Authority (no Mayor) and the Tees Valley Combined Authority (with a Mayor). However, following a political falling out, the northern authorities from the North East Combined Authority all left and formed their new 'North of Tyne Combined Authority' with a Mayor and devolution deal. The North East Combined Authority doesn't have a Mayor, but most of the North East does. It is also worth noting that it is 95% certain that a West Yorkshire devolution deal, with Mayor, will be announced in this month's budget.

And Cornwall’s devolution deal does not establish a combined authority, with all powers devolved to Cornwall Council (a single unitary authority). Further still, only one of the Combined Authorities has been created from a combination of shire county and district councils in non-core city areas – Cambridge and Peterborough…still with me?

It appears the Osborne agenda has lost a degree of control, but despite this the commitment to ‘level up’ powers and investment in regions across England has shown signs of encouragement. While devolution to Mayoral Combined Authorities has worked in an urban context, this model may not be appropriate or necessary for all places, particularly non-metropolitan England. With the exception of Cambridge and Peterborough, it is questionable that the other nine Combined Authorities are effectively applying their city scale aspirations to their smaller town and/or rural communities.

We are aware as planners that there is an inherent link between the politics involved in development management decisions and the plan making system. The status and content of a Local Planning Authority’s Local Plan will remain fundamental when considering development proposals. Nevertheless, the need to have a much broader understanding of  the strategic vision of an area and the changing political landscape will remain equally as important as we step forward post Brexit.

As we move forward, there is no alternative to devolution and city led growth. It took leaders of South Yorkshire authorities nearly four years to agree on devolution in the region and it’s still not in place. Such delays will have surely sapped ambition and in turn hindered any opportunity for communities regardless of scale to reach their ambitions. The new devolution deals don’t consult with the public and are structured in such a way as to reduce public participation – not ideal when their purpose is to ensure robust accountability and democratic oversight. The process of devolution clearly needs to be simplified, sped up and consideration given to how to overcome the ‘democratic deficit’. Areas should also be afforded the opportunity to propose their own governance arrangements, a stance taken by the North East Combined Authority in 2014.

Although the future governance surrounding the devolution of powers remains uncertain, we cannot let fragmented governance affect how we as planners deliver and shape development. Planning Potential and Communications Potential continue to influence, positively promote and communicate development to communities. In turn, our involvement acts as a catalyst in bringing social and economic growth to the local areas it seeks to serve.

Sam Deegan, Associate