National Audit Office – reservations around devolution

“It is certainly very complex. The point for us is given that complexity it’s really important to spell out these things clearly, so that local people understand at what level responsibility sits.”

NAO17:22 Wednesday 20th April 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: New doubts have surfaced today over the Government’s devolution deal for East Anglia. The plan announced by the Chancellor earlier this year would mean powers over planning and transport would transfer to a new authority, combining Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough have rejected the current deal, and today fresh concern, this time from the National Audit Office. It says the plan is untested, and by giving so much power to so many councils, accountability could be a problem. I spoke to Keith Davis from the National Audit Office a little earlier.
KEITH DAVIS: So what we’re saying about these deals is they offer the prospect of local growth and of public service reform, but what we’re trying to say is that they’re new, they’re untested, and therefore it’s particularly important that there is clarification on exactly what they’re trying to achieve, how impact is going to be monitored and assessed, the questions about accountability also need clarifying, who’s going to be responsible, how is that going to work. The other big point we’re making is that this is taking place against the backdrop of reductions in the funding of local authorities, 25% over the last five years, another 8% coming out over the next four. And then that makes it more of a challenge in terms of their capacity to implement these kind of changes.
CHRIS MANN: These aren’t little concerns. These are big issues, aren’t they? So should it go forward with all of these unanswered so far?

KEITH DAVIS: The principles behind the deals, that they’ll offer through allowing greater local autonomy that that will lead to increased local growth and public service reform, on the face of it they do make some sense. But the point is they’re untested, and that’s why this .. if you like the framework in which it takes place and how they’re going to be assessed, how people moving forward will understand whether they are achieving their objectives or not, is so important.
CHRIS MANN: The money involved as I said is relatively large, a billion pounds for East Anglia. But it’s over 30 years. Do we have the expertise to manage that, and is it enough money?
KEITH DAVIS: Well there’s certainly .. there’s some new money, and then there’s some putting into a central pot is you like for each area, amounts that were previously held by Government departments. It is a challenge to have the capacity to make sure that all of this is implemented well, and that’s what we’re saying to the Government departments is one of the big risks associated with this, and that we would want to see clear plans for how they’re going to do that within the budget constraints that are known to be there.
CHRIS MANN: Those plans are already made of course by Government and by city councils and district councils and so on. If there’s a mayor in there doing it, does it just add an extra layer of government? Does it make a difference in your view?
KEITH DAVIS: Well it’s important to have clear accountability at the level at which the services are being delivered. And so if we’re devolving responsibility to local areas, then it makes sense that you need some structures for that local accountability to operate. In this case the Government has chosen mayors and combined authorities, and what’s important is that that is then made to work, and it is clear how that local accountability will work.
CHRIS MANN: A big issue here is the fact that the idea is to put Cambridgeshire in the same package as Norfolk and Suffolk, and have a mayor for the whole area. But actually those are very different counties from Cambridgeshire, aren’t they?
KEITH DAVIS: This report is looking at the national picture. It’s not to try to make any assessment of the individual circumstances of particular areas. The point that we’re trying to make is that these things do need to be set out clearly how it’s going to work, the balance between national and local responsibility, and that will vary across different policy areas, because there’s different policy areas included in different devolution deals. And then within that there are different levels, amounts of power that are devolved down to regions. That creates a very complex picture, and the point is because that’s so complex, that the accountabilities, the responsibilities do need to be nailed down very clearly.
CHRIS MANN: So is it too complex in your view, potentially, if you’ve got planning and transport needs being decided at lots of different regions, rather than in Whitehall, that it’s quite a confused picture potentially?
KEITH DAVIS: It is certainly very complex. The point for us is given that complexity it’s really important to spell out these things clearly, so that local people understand at what level responsibility sits. And then if the worst happens and something does go wrong with a particular service, they understand who they can hold to account, who is being responsible for that.
CHRIS MANN: That’s Keith Davis from the National Audit Office, talking to me earlier on about the Government’s devolution deal for East Anglia.