THE BLOG
22/09/2015 11:01 BST | Updated 21/09/2016 06:12 BST

Communities Must Be Front and Centre of Devolution Discussions

As negotiations over English devolution rumble on, local communities need to make sure they are banging the drum for neighbourhoods and making enough noise so they are not overlooked in the biggest shake up of local government in a generation.

In the run up to the Government's spending review in November, deals for more power to be handed to cities and counties are being debated. As the devolution agenda gathers pace - with local authorities already developing plans to make the most of additional powers such as transport, economic development, skills and training, health and wellbeing - local communities need to be front and centre of these discussions to make sure they don't get left behind in the rush to hand more power to cities and regions.

The Government has said it wants a "bottom up" approach to settling the new devolution deals and has committed to negotiate with local areas who come up with an offer as a starting point for discussion but we already know there are some key deal breaker issues, like the introduction of elected "metro-Mayors" covering city regions such as Greater Manchester. We've been watching these developments closely and are making in-roads with Government to ensure that community organisations, who know what's needed in their local areas, are involved in discussions.

Devolution is both a threat and opportunity for community-led organisations across England. There is a very real danger that it will end up focused on cities and counties, excluding neighbourhoods and resulting in powers being more centralised, rather than fed down to the grass roots. Worryingly, involvement from the community and voluntary sector in any discussions has, to date, been fairly minimal. That needs to change: neighbourhoods need to be put at the heart of local decision-making but that will only happen if communities put themselves at the forefront of negotiations.

Locality's Keep it Local campaign is all about making sure that services are locally-focused and centred on supporting people's needs rather than outsourcing services into mega contracts which result in costly and inappropriate one-size fits all services. As local authorities set up city or county wide governance, there is a danger that this outsourcing and scaling up will accelerate. And as pressure increases on local authorities to make savings they may be tempted to turn to economies of scale, meaning that local and community led providers are frozen out of service delivery. I talk about some of these risks in more detail in an interview with Public Service Executive.

But there are big opportunities too for community organisations. If we get it right, we could see a renaissance in neighbourhood level governance and powers, which puts decision making in the hands of local people. If - and it's a big if - we avoid the temptation to set up bureaucratic new structures and extra layers of politicians, we could set up new powers and mechanisms so that local providers are prioritised, and community organisations which provide vital services would be seen as partners of local authorities who could take on more public service delivery without necessarily having to compete with national outsourcing companies

Locality is working to influence the direction of discussions around devolution. We are shaping the agenda through meetings and discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Office of Civil Society to ensure a strong voice for the community sector in the negotiations and to explore with the Government which models of devolved decision making and service delivery might work.

The Prime Minister gave a speech on the "smarter state" earlier this month and said: "The best businesses would never shy away from allowing their customers to shape the way they improve their services. If we are bold enough, government can go one better by actually putting many of those services in the hands of local people. It is also a proven reality that money spent closer to people is often money spent wiser - so we can really deliver more for less."

Good rhetoric, but empty words unless we make sure power really is devolved to communities. It's what we will be working hard to achieve and influence, but we need help. If this process is to be truly "bottom up", community-led organisations and local infrastructure bodies need to be actively influencing the process.

It is clear that there is commitment in Government to neighbourhood level engagement - and this is welcome - but we need to keep pressure on to ensure there is a strong role for the social sector and a focus on neighbourhoods. Community organisations also need to make sure they call for a place round the table as deals are formulated in their own regions and cities.

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