THE BLOG

Realising the Revolution: Making Devolution Work for People and Communities

13/01/2016 11:06 GMT | Updated 12/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Less than two weeks into the New Year, we might look forward to 2016 as the year of the 'devolution revolution' - with the Chancellor George Osborne playing the starring role as we all take to the barricades to reclaim our communities from centuries of centralisation.

At the moment though, I can't see this being likely. There is still a long way to go to seeing power fully in the hands of local people.

We've been promised new ways of empowering local communities for decades, but progress has been painfully slow. Most recently the Localism agenda has established a very welcome set of powers which give communities control of what happens in their own neighbourhoods.

The community rights and neighbourhood planning give people real responsibilities over their local area and communities can use tools outlined in the Localism Act to help them take over their local pub, shop or community centre, run local services or guide the development of their local area but a full renaissance of community powers is yet to come.

The latest move in English devolution, beginning with Greater Manchester in 2014, and now with deals across the country, from Cornwall to Liverpool, is a massive restructuring of the way the state looks - and it is here to stay. But whether it delivers 'onward devolution' in passing powers to communities and a resurgence in neighbourhood-led governance is not guaranteed.

There are a number of worrying characteristics to the current devolution wave. Firstly, despite the Chancellor's insistence that devolution should be 'bottom up', the imposition of an elected mayor - in some areas with veto powers over the council - is causing raised hackles among some local authorities and people seem apathetic to this new layer of leadership.

I'm also worried that the focus on economic growth which is driving devolution is too narrow - it neglects the importance of building strong communities, prioritising social inclusion and creating an economy that works for the people in it.

A golden opportunity for innovation when it comes to our public services is also at risk of being missed. Devolution is the perfect moment to reshape public services to ensure locally-focused services which are centred on supporting people's needs. But with the recent Spending Review signalling extremely tough times ahead for local councils, I'm worried that this will lead to the closure of some local services as local authorities turn to scale and standardisation in outsourcing in the mistaken belief that it will save them money.

New measures including the new social care precept, the devolution of business rates and the phasing out of central government funding, show that the pressure is being piled on local government now to keep many of our public services afloat. And with local authorities struggling just to keep statutory services going - it is likely we are moving towards a situation where the availability of services is dependent on whether the community is able to pay for them.

We do need a revolution - but we have to beware the rhetoric that tells us that the recent devolution "deals" will do the trick. The danger is we shift some marginal responsibilities between bits of the public sector and end up disempowering local people.

If devolution is truly to work for people and communities, it must be more than just a technocratic exercise. It must be used to strengthen community involvement in local decision making, ensure that the highest possible social and long-term economic value is delivered by our public services through local commissioning, and build the social economy.

This is why we have worked with NAVCA, and Locality members in West Yorkshire, to develop a set of principles which should be at the heart of devolution. Our headline five principles are:

  1. Creating a social economy
  2. Meaningful representation of the voluntary and community sector within new leadership structures
  3. Ensuring accountability through effective community engagement
  4. Decisions taken at the most local level appropriate
  5. Working with local organisations to support local commissioning and local delivery of public services
We have been using these principles nationally to call on central government to shape what is going on locally and we have been championing the role of the community sector as a central partner to the emerging devolution deals.

There is a mixed picture when it comes to government engaging with communities over devolution -some areas are inviting submissions on their draft deals, whilst in other areas the voluntary and community sector is creating its own opportunities to meet council leaders - but I hope that where there are opportunities to make the case for these principles, they will be used.