Will devolution change the public affairs agenda?

Historically there has always been a whiff of smoke and mirrors about anything related to devolution, with governments promising it, then delivering something that isn't devolution at all, but that, with the aid of a bit of sleight of hand, can be made to look like it come election time, says Curtin&Co's Martin Curtis

It's time for public affairs professionals to get to grips with the devolution agenda, writes Martin Curtis
It's time for public affairs professionals to get to grips with the devolution agenda, writes Martin Curtis

But this time does feel different; there are a raft of cities that look like they are going to get more power and more control over their own destiny in exchange for giving residents their personal Boris or Ken.

Outside of the cities, more decisions will be made soon to deliver combined authorities that look like they will take even more responsibility from Whitehall.

Centre for Cities’ excellent document, Cities Outlook 2016, highlights how the agenda has changed dramatically over the past year and shows how there are already agreements to transfer over £5bn in funding to just six devolution deals, while passing responsibility for areas such as education, housing, transport and health and social care.

The first of the new mayors will be elected in May 2017.

We are a massively over-centralised country so, even though these new structures make our already confusing local government structures look ever more complicated, giving local politicians more accountability and more responsibility for delivering the aspirations of the residents they serve has to be a good thing.

We should applaud it and applaud it loudly.

But, I wonder whether those who engage in public affairs at a national level are sufficiently geared up for it?

Are we ready for the situation where the Manchester MPs whom we normally lobby in Westminster for housing growth, for that new business park or the infrastructure improvement that is vital for our client’s future, are cut out of the loop?

Are we prepared for the time when the minister has passed responsibility and accountability downwards, or for when the Greater Manchester Mayor is the person driving the much needed changes to our social care system?

We should also bear in mind that important areas like economic development have already, effectively been devolved to local level.

It’s not yet a physical transfer of responsibility, but the decision to allow councils to keep business rates achieves the same goal.

To me, this is a welcome decision that ensures the economic need of a locality has to be at the heart of councils’ thinking.

My suspicion is that we are not yet ready. Despite what some may think, good public affairs work is vital.

It brings issues to the attention of decision makers, sharpens their thinking and, importantly, it helps to inform and speed up decisions that, if we hadn’t proved their importance, might otherwise remain in the long grass.

In the new world of devolution this will prove just as important at a local level as it currently is nationally.

So, maybe we need to start planning for the future now and working more closely with all tiers of government.

Martin Curtis is associate director at Curtin&Co

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