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New Devolution Act fails to grant councils the true freedom they need to function, says City Constitution expert

New Act expects devolution on Whitehall’s terms, says Dr John Stanton

by George Wigmore (Senior Communications Officer)

The new Devolution Act restricts local Councils to Whitehall’s terms rather than granting them the freedom they so desperately need to function appropriately, according to Dr John Stanton, a constitutional law expert at City University London.

Given Royal Assent on Thursday 28th January, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 will see powers devolved to cities and regions providing a range of powers in key areas such as transport, planning, health skills and jobs support.

However, Whitehall have also made stipulations that require authorities to adopt an elected mayor in a change to the model of governance that has proved widely unpopular in recent referenda, but which the government seems keen to pursue.

Speaking about the new Act, Dr Stanton, a Senior Lecturer in The City University London Law School, said:

“This new Act, whilst ostensibly ensuring greater power for local bodies, seems to expect devolution on Whitehall’s terms as all deals must be agreed with the Secretary of State. Going forward, and in practice, if the Act’s positive features are to be enjoyed to full effect, central government needs to let councils get on with it and enjoy the freedom they so desperately need to function appropriately.”

In May 2015, shortly after the General Election, George Osborne could be heard in Manchester proclaiming the wonders of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and lauding the benefits of yet more proposed change to localism in Britain. Over the course of subsequent months, a number of cities subscribed to the model whereby councils can come together, forming a ‘combined authority’ overseen by a directly elected mayor, and enjoying a raft of new powers over the local area.

As a result the new Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 was enacted, creating a legislative base for this ‘new model’ of local government and laying the foundations for others to follow suit and enjoy greater local autonomy and authority. Osborne labels it a ‘devolution revolution’, whilst Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark notes that it underpins existing devolutionary measures and will enable councils to enjoy a greater say over what goes on in local areas.

“Whilst the various ‘City Deals’ that have littered the headlines in recent months are nothing if not positive steps towards the development of local power and successful decentralisation, there is a sense that the new Act rather misses the point. For many years, many of the difficulties facing councils in Britain have stemmed from issues at the centre”, added Dr Stanton.

“Fierce financial cuts to local authority budgets combined with a persistent reluctance at the centre to ‘let go’ and afford councils the freedom to lead local areas, have conspired to produce a centralist culture whereby local authorities have become mere satellites of the centre.”

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