Grant Thornton Blog – Devolution in Shire areas

CCN Blogs | 20 June 2017

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Grant Thornton has worked with a wide variety of County and District Councils across England as they grapple with devolution and local government reorganisation. We recognise and celebrate the strengths of all types of local authority, but considering the challenges facing shire areas today, you probably wouldnt design the two-tier system if you had the opportunity to start with a blank sheet of paper.

Enabling sustainable growth is key to government at all levels, both in terms of maximising the resilience of the national and local economies as we exit the EU, and keeping local authorities financially viable as grant funding dwindles to nothing. Related issues such as regeneration, infrastructure improvement and growth cut across the responsibilities of Counties and Districts, but joint decision-making can often prove challenging with no single point of accountability and particularly in areas with an urban / rural divide. These frictions can often be felt as a brake on local economies in reaching their full potential, frustration amongst local partners and investors and a closed door in front of devolution deals.

In the background, the looming spectre of health and social care funding threatens to bankrupt the system. Collaboration and integration between local government and the NHS has proven to be challenging and has not been helped by the unfolding fiasco around publication of STPs.

Much effort has been spent by local strategic partnerships in addressing these problems, with little progress to show for it. Would a shift to unitary structures hold the solution? If so then how should areas be carved up and partners involved? What governance structures will provide the confidence for central government to unlock a devolution deal? Could a combined authority, with or without a mayor, make a positive impact on outcomes? How can we make sense of economic geography in larger, decentralised rural areas? These questions are in danger of seeming intractable and, at worst, discussions have ended in open dispute. Central government has shown that they are only interested in working with areas that offer a consensus around a shared vision of the future. Why would they want to act as referee given the other challenges facing the country?

Having worked with many different organisations it is clear to us that all stakeholders local authorities and their partners – are seeking the same things: the best possible outcomes for local communities and a healthy and productive local economy. Local leaders badly need new levers and tools to achieve their aims, and for once they might actually be on offer if they can work together to grasp them.

Until everyone is working together within Shire areas, nobody is in control and in the meantime the status quo prevails. We passionately believe that the only sensible way to achieve vibrant local economies is to look beyond squabbles over control, open new lines of communication and take collective ownership of the future. We have been lucky enough to work alongside a number of forward-looking organisations and partnerships to support that aim.

Ellender-MartinMartin Ellender, Grant Thornton