The government has just released its devolution annual report, which details the devolution agreements Westminster reached with local authorities during 2016/17. For this year, the paper simply reveals that there were zero new deals. Given that 2016 saw councils across the country pitching for greater autonomy, as promised by the Chancellor, this represents an important volte-face.
Responding to the news, the Local Government Association (LGA) said that councils had long warned of the risk of ‘devolution deadlock’ if the government failed to push forward with its promises. In particular, the LGA stated that it is disappointing that the report took ten months to produce, despite the absence of progress.
Cllr Mark Hawthorne commented that, “there is now a real risk that areas without devolution deals will be left behind.” In other words, communities may see marked differences in the capabilities of councils to deal with local social and fiscal concerns.
Worsening budget situation
This comes against a backdrop of increasing concern over regional budgets. With central funding expected to fall as much as 77% by 2020, and new reforms muddying the water over what proportion of council tax and business rates can be set and retained by local authorities, it is becoming more difficult to safeguard finances for services.
Many councils have been looking to devolution as a solution. By implementing tailored, local solutions to growing financial and social issues, they expected to be able to not only raise and spend money in the most efficient way possible, but also prioritise problems and deliver solutions specific to their local context.
On the positive side, this fresh government report may bring renewed focus to the devolution debate. For example, the LGA recently claimed that the skills shortage businesses face today could be improved by empowering councils to support local businesses in 'skilling up'. Throwing weight behind campaigns like this could spark progress.
If not, local authorities will need to make sure they can cope through the measures they can control. This may mean council tax rises in line with newly promised powers, or being more active in encouraging prompt debt repayment and engaging with debtors to arrange fair and reasonable repayments. For information about how our Dukes ethical debt collection services can help, contact one of our operators today.