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Delayed devolution

After a flurry of excitement, it now looks as though the devolution and recovery white paper is delayed until next year.

The hotly anticipated cousin to Planning for the Future was set to judder and quake local government into a shape that will take the government’s levelling up agenda, and reforms to planning, and turn them into tangible changes – quickly – ready to entice voters at the next general election.

Why the delay?

Well, there is a pandemic.

There has also been a key change in personnel with the sudden departure of the minister in charge at the beginning of the month (for purely personal reasons). His replacement, Thornbury and Yate’s Luke Hall now has the regional growth and local government brief to get to grips with which as well as local government reorganisation includes the response of local authority resilience forums to Covid-19. We can all agree which of these is more important in the shorter term.

This delay part answers the question we’ve pondered as to whether government really would fire the formal starting gun on the greatest shake up in a generation in the midst – and indeed in the second ascendency – of a pandemic that councils are busy responding to.

Whilst it remains that there is a consensus across all colours, levels and geographies of government that it’s time for some form of reform, there’s very little around exactly how to reorganise or that this autumn is the time to start.

The same could perhaps be said for Planning for the Future for which the argument to continue pursuing was the pandemic itself – the recovery needs a better planning system. But are both papers not key to the recovery?

What does it mean for Planning for the Future?

The two papers are not distinct. The direction of travel of both is less councillors (not less devolution, or less governance, just less councillors) both in discussions on planning and in their actual existence.

Whether one needs the other to be fully understood has seemed likely. We, like almost everyone else, have been refining our response to Planning for the Future with our ears firmly to the ground listening for MHCLG’s printers to start up again.

As September passed, we now know we will be responding to one without knowing what’s in the other.

Whilst we’ve been waiting shire Tory and urban Labour councillors have been heard throughout the land – even above the bickering over whether four districts should form two unitaries or the one county that covers those four districts should form only one unitary – making the case against the changing roles of councillors proposed in Planning for the Future, and some just screaming at the new standard housing assessment figures.

It is of no surprise to anyone that MPs are now echoing the thoughts of their councillor friends and campaign coordinators who, as councillors, are not keen on councillors having a lesser say over what can’t be built around them.

Many including myself had assumed changes proposed by the devolution paper may offer a clearer, smoother path to planning reform – reforming planning and the institutions at the same time just makes sense (if you like reform, that is).

The circumstantial delays now suffered by devolution seem certain to delay at least some aspects of the proposed changes to the planning system.

What does it mean for reorganisation?

The rumours that when the paper appears it’ll be less radical than had been expected should be taken with a pinch of salt. The general tenet of less councillors and less councils will stand.

Not least because the now former minister and his predecessor have spent the past year travelling the country egging on councils to come up with their own business cases for reorganisation ahead of the publication of the paper. Anyone living, working or playing in any of these areas will be aware the bickering began the moment the ministerial car drove away and hasn’t ceased since.

The risk is this now continues throughout the winter putting a spanner in the works of much of the greater collaboration needed to support our faltering local economies.

But reorganisation is still on its way. The same problems still exist. There is a funding crisis made worse by the pandemic which will inhibit local authorities’ roles as the delivery mechanism for not only the much-touted levelling up agenda but also quite likely key to a long-term solution to social care.

It is for this reason that – like more and more things this winter – it’s time to stay calm and await the spring sunshine that will signal the return of holistic reform to planning and the institutions that plan.