Whilst questions hang over devolution deals, APSE’s Mo Baines, Head of Communication and Coordination, explores the case for frontline services to be part of the rebalancing of the UK economy – with or without Combined Authorities.
Within the UK, economic performance is often judged on the economic indicators that are skewed by regional divides; a buoyant economy in the South East, with high levels of employment and resultant higher wages, compared to areas like the North East, suffering from post-industrial decline. Within the four nations, England out-performs the rest of the UK. Unemployment remains a pervasive issue for the north/south divide. According to the Office for National Statistics data release for August 2016, unemployment in the North East was at 6.8% – the highest anywhere in the UK – whilst in the South East, it was just 3.7%. The political response to this economic imbalance is devolution. Push power and resources out to the regions and, simplistically speaking, this should correct the regional disparities in growth and employment.
However, few believe devolution is a panacea. Huge issues remain over the level of powers and genuine fiscal devolution is a long way off. There is also growing concern over the role of Local Enterprise Partnerships. As business-led bodies, the involvement of LEPs is seen by many as critical but there is an inherent need to balance business interests with intended public policy outcomes. As more Combined Authorities hit difficulties, questions mount as to the efficacy of a vehicle so long in gestation but beset by political, cultural and practical difficulties. And yet the problems of economic imbalance remain.
APSE would posit that many of the problems that Combined Authorities seek to resolve could still be addressed by local councils directly, working where needed across geographic boundaries. In fact, excluding local council frontline services from devolution programmes could hamper the intended regional outcomes. Take transport and promises of investment in new road and rail links; how successful will this be for local people and local businesses if people come off major transport links into pot-hole riddled local highways?
Whilst national attention has focused on Combined Authorities, there is a quiet revolution in local council frontline services. Increasingly, APSE is seeing an entrepreneurial spirit; services are embracing commercialisation, not just as a strategy to balance budgets but to add to the socio-economic benefits that devolution purports to address. Councils like Bristol and Nottingham are leading the way in addressing fuel poverty and renewable energy. In Thurrock, Harrow and Aberdeen, new housing and regeneration schemes are creating not only new homes but growth in construction and skills. In Birmingham, Swansea and North Ayrshire employability schemes are delivering tangible returns on long-term employment solutions, meeting the skills gap between local areas and new businesses. In East Riding, leisure centres aid an ill-health prevention strategy, reducing levels of bariatric surgery and tackling type II diabetes. Sadly, however, few frontline services are being engaged by Combined Authorities in delivering outcomes.
There is a case for devolution to provide over-arching sub-regional strategies, yet APSE would question the wisdom of Combined Authorities who act without integrating local government frontline services. Like many things in life, the solutions to many of these socio-economic divides are hidden in full view. Is it not time for Combined Authorities to embrace the solutions that local government frontline services can offer?