The CIPFA devolution summit in June, sponsored by Grant Thornton, provided finance directors and chief executives with an opportunity to comment on key devolution issues and take the discussion on the localisation of new powers and responsibilities in a number of new directions.
Capturing the views that came out of the summit, it was clear that the case for devolution has been accepted by many in the public sector. Many in the audience, including those in district authorities, were clear about the direction of travel on devolution and securing greater powers from the centre.
And in a modern twist for local government, there was also an understanding if not always an agreement, that the pace of change will not be dictated by the slowest reformers or even the majority. Change will be led by those that are ready and ask for these new powers as well as those who can present a sound evidence base and strong economic arguments that feed into the government’s objectives of economic growth and greater outcomes for the public pound.
There was also recognition that some form of equalisation must take place to ensure that there is financial security. But the level of equalisation was not agreed by everyone and there were also differing opinions over the balance between incentive and redistribution. Seeing growth so high on the agenda meant getting the balance right was going to be a crucial part of the next local government finance arrangement. John Dickie, Director of Strategy and Policy at London First, struck a chord for many when he talked about the engagement local government has with business as being insufficient for the times ahead.
An exploration of the local accountant of the future by Paul Dosett, Head of Local Government at Grant Thornton, also raised a few smiles. Looking to the future, Paul asked if all those in the room were prepared for the changes ahead. The new world will certainly need more commercial skills and a larger appetite for risk. But the recognition of the need for strong financial frameworks, as well as comprehensive governance and accountability structures, provided a reassuring note to what is a very real challenge to the profession.
One of the most poignant questions came from Carol Culley, Deputy City Treasurer of Manchester City Council, who spoke about having to deal with situations where you would have to agree a decision for the good of the combined authority but where it might not be best for your individual organisation. This sounds acceptable and understandable in principle but faced with an election it may be a challenge for elected councillors to accept.
At the heart of devolution is the belief that central government is not the best place to decide polices for local people. Under a more devolved system, local leaders take on greater responsibility for these roles which include housing, health, infra-structure and skills. With greater partnership working across the local level a more coordinated approach is taken which results in improved outcomes.
If there was a common theme to the summit it was that everything that is being done around this agenda is to improve the delivery of public services even in the face of the long term financial challenges.
Devolution does not happen overnight and although there is a momentum and a sense of urgency surrounding this agenda it will take time to get right.
This starts with vision and clear leadership, driven initially from the top. The culture must embrace collaborative working and excel at partnership because devolution involves a series of complex interdependencies across the public sector.
With clear leadership, devolution must also have an evidence-based sense of place. Growth and improved productivity are the goals. No two areas will be identical as can been seen from the difference between Cornwall and the West Midlands combined authority.
But at the centre, there needs to be the drive for growth and a sustainable financial model and any bid must have a strong evidence base to support its proposals.
With the acceptance of the bid to central government, the detailed transformation can commence. Transformation, subsidiarity and governance will all take place simultaneously and the challenge will then be to ensure that the original vision and desire for improved outcomes are not consumed within bureaucracy but can be evidenced and strengthened to deliver high quality public services for all.