What’s devolution all about – if not frontline services?


Category: devoComment

APSE’s approach to devolution stems very much from the impact that it is having upon the provision and delivery of frontline services in local government. However, as devolution has evolved over the last few years and deals have been agreed between localities and Government, the debate has been lacking any conversation about frontline services. 

Local councils have suffered cuts in the region of 30% with frontline neighbourhood services losing £3.1 billion in funding since 2010. So for devolution to be significant the question we would ask is: has devolution been a positive for local governments’ frontline and could it be affected by devolution now, and in the future?

Our answer would be that so far devolution appears to be happening without the real and meaningful involvement of those at the coalface of local Government. And yet these are the very services that people tend to care about the most; their local parks, local roads and services like leisure centres. It is easy to see why devolution deals have excited the politicians but left the public wondering, what it’s all about?

In a recent report collaboration between APSE and CLES we found that whilst the range of powers devolved is broad, frontline services have largely been omitted from the devolution debate. Conversations taking place at a strategic level have had little engagement or consideration of on-the-ground services. This is despite the potentially wide-ranging implications for frontline services. How can we have strategic goals on transport if councils are starved of cash to fix potholes? How can we promise powers over housing if councils have ever growing council house waiting lists and yet no freedoms to build much needed new council homes? 

We would therefore argue that developing a better relationship between frontline services and strategic policy makers at the local level is integral to the success of devolution. Strategists and frontline managers must close the communication gap, working with policy makers and central Government to design progressive devolution deals that empower local places. We must also guard against a democratic deficit. Local councils and their leaders are still as important to local place as Elected Mayors or Combined Authorities. Their role and that of frontline services should not become a sacrificial lamb to newer structures.

Devolution and elected Mayors may seem an inherently sound idea – but we cannot deliver an end to the economic blight suffered in local places if we continue to starve local councils of the basic resources that are still vital to local people, local places and local economies. Greater collaboration in the future, with the solutions that modern and dynamic frontline services can bring to the table, will be key to successful outcomes for elected Mayors and Combined Authorities. 

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