Hidden in plain sight: the frontline answer to devolution woes

By Paul O'Brien and Victoria Bettany | 15 September 2017
  • Paul O'Brien

As negative mutterings continue to mount on the future viability of devolution deals, and the sustainability of those already in place, there is a gaping chasm in the debate about what devolution actually means to the overall improvement of local government.

Devolution has ambitiously set out to tackle some of the wicked public policy issues; unemployment and skills; transport and regional growth; housing; and, in some deals, health and wealth inequalities. These are all very laudable, but they are set against a backdrop of local government services that are creaking under financial pressure. Research by APSE and NPI found that, within England, neighbourhood services have lost a staggering £3.2bn since 2011.

Devolution could be perceived – not unreasonably – to be creating some ‘devo superstars’, driving at sub-regional devolution policies with gusto, within a mix of districts and upper tier authorities that are increasingly seeing the impact of the wide-reaching budget cuts. The risk is that we create a sub-regional devolution plan on a super-highway level, leaving local government’s bread and butter services languishing on an un-adopted road.

So far, frontline services have been largely absent from the devolution debate. New research by APSE and CLES, titled ‘The impact of devolution upon frontline services’, found that devolution has concentrated on strategic level issues, with a widespread lack of consideration about how frontline services are impacted. More importantly, few are asking how frontline services can be part of the solution to the problems that devolution is seeking to address. Through conversations undertaken as part of our research, it is clear that the exclusion of frontline services from the devolution dialogue is leading to serious misgivings; many senior managers in the frontline regard devolution as yet another veil for further cuts, as they see little direct benefit to their struggling service-based budgets.

As part of our research, we wanted to explore the possibilities for a more cohesive and locally led approach to devolution, reflecting that some now view devolution as being too focused on business-led objectives, which risk undermining the public services platform that devolution must also embrace, if it is to truly work for the benefit of all.

There are many areas where frontline services should be embraced. Consider housing – to deliver sub-regional plans for housing we know that there has traditionally been a heavy reliance upon developers. But more recently, across the country, individual local authorities have been busy setting up very effective local housing companies, bringing homes for both sale and affordable rent to the market, and much more quickly and successfully than relying entirely on private developers. 

Housing is not the only area. To address health inequalities, we know that we need to shift gear to prevention strategies. That means, among many other things, promoting healthier lifestyles through better eating. However, many of the twin-hatted members of devo boards, with their local council hats on, still insist that education catering budgets should be on a fully traded basis. ‘Subsidy’ is a dirty work if you are trying to feed kids a decent school meal, but label it ‘devo’ and it is a preventative health strategy. The case could equally be made for parks; they bring enormous physical and mental health benefits to residents, not to mention the value this brings in economic terms. Let’s also take leisure services; in places like the East Riding of Yorkshire, their ground-breaking leisure services have been proven to reduce bariatric surgery through interventions by the service and GPs. This is an example of frontline innovation at its best – and successful long before any talk of devolution deals.

It is clear that there is a disconnect between frontline services and devolution. Frontline services are part of the solution, hidden in plain sight. We need the devolution boards to look down – not up or sideways – when seeking partners to tackle their gritty problems.

The benefits of devolution, in reality, will not be open to all places. It is therefore important to understand what places can do in terms of collaboration and integration at the local level. Where devolution is either too slow or simply not an option, policy issues need to be tackled through greater recognition of what modern frontline services are capable of delivering – when they are given the chance to shine.

Paul O’Brien is chief executive of the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) and Victoria Bettany is senior researcher for the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES)

Download The impact of devolution upon frontline services at www.apse.org.uk

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