Bassetlaw District Council leader doubts how much the area would benefit from East Midlands devolution

Achieving devolution across the East Midlands would offer “possibilities and opportunities” if done right, a leading politics professor has said.

By Andrew Topping, Local Democracy Reporter
Monday, 16th August 2021, 10:31 am

But concerns have been raised that devolved powers are not always a “magic bullet”, with some local leaders stressing the need for a clear plan.

Nottinghamshire County Council voted last month to write to the Prime Minister and ‘start the conversation’ on securing a regionwide devolution package.

If achieved, it could see an East Midlands Combined Authority set up and more decision-making powers handed to the region.

Coun Simon Greaves, leader of Bassetlaw District Council.

Other regions to achieve devolution have set their own policy on issues like healthcare, transport, planning and development, with some establishing elected mayor roles.

Government figures show the East Midlands currently receives the lowest per-head investment of any area in England.

It is also one of just a few areas nationally to not have devolved powers, despite similar efforts to achieve a package back in 2016.

And pressing forward with devolution, supporters say, will help to address this “imbalance”.

The drive has been welcomed across the political divide, described by some as a mechanism for change.

Though some concerns have been raised, with a number of council leaders believing it would need to work for all corners of the region.

Similar concerns have been raised by Professor Matthew Mokhefi-Ashton, a leading politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University.

The professor described the move as a good idea, warning however it can be implemented “really badly”.

He said: “Devolution offers lots of possibilities and lots of opportunities if it’s done correctly.

“One of the problems we’ve had in this country for a long time is a lack of joined-up policymaking.

“But sometimes central government says ‘okay, we’ll have devolution’ and it’s seen as a magic bullet.

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“That’s not always the case and sometimes the Government does not like how it is implemented, if its own ‘levelling up’ plans aren’t met.

“You’ve got to think very carefully about how you do devolution, what powers you have, what responsibilities and mechanisms of accountability there are.

“Certainly the idea of handing down powers and responsibilities to lower levels of government can work really well.

“It can also work really badly. It’s about how you go about doing it.”

Prof Mokhefi-Ashton adds one of the drawbacks for devolved administrations is not being given power or resources to “make change”.

Areas like Greater Manchester, where a combined authority is in place, have previously hit out over the way cash is distributed from central government.

No detailed proposals have yet been put forward about what an East Midlands package would look like.

And Prof Mokhefi-Ashton says one of the “tricky” issues for the region could be deciding how cash is spent locally.

“You can get agreement if there are suitable carrots and sticks involved,” he said.

“To give an example, if there’s an opportunity to get more money from central government for big infrastructure projects, I think people from both left and right, and independents, will work together.

“If it’s a case of having the money and then getting to decide what to do with it locally, that is going to cause more problems.

“People have different priorities, different ways of spending, and there are already imbalances between areas.

“That could be tricky, you see it already in places of the country where it’s very split between Labour, the independents and Conservatives.”

And this point is also a big sticking point for some local leaders, with concerns raised over how individual districts and boroughs would benefit.

Councillor Simon Greaves, leader of Bassetlaw District Council, says he has long been an advocate for more devolved powers.

But he doubts how much benefit his area would receive in an East Midlands deal, given its close ties to the South Yorkshire region.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, he added: “Levelling up has got to work for everyone.

“It has especially got to work for areas like Bassetlaw, and at the moment I’m very sceptical with the way the policy will deliver in reality.

“I’ve been around the block many times on this subject. There are a few things I think the larger authorities will run a million miles from.

“I don’t believe for a moment there will be an appetite to draw up major transport planning, public transport provision or a publicly-owned transport network.

“Those are the actual changes that are really needed in order to make a difference.

“We can’t be held over a barrel. There has got to be some real fundamentals rather than messing around, tinkering just won’t cut it.”

Many supporters of devolution do see it as an opportunity to invest in region-wide infrastructure projects, including on issues such as transport.

Other areas where devolution is in place have linked public transport networks together and set their own fares.

But a project of this kind, supporters say, can also be used to build off the back of major schemes like the East Midlands Freeport and phase b of HS2’s eastern leg – if it ever comes to fruition.

Doubts have already been cast over the HS2 scheme in Toton, with fears it could be shelved despite £30 million being invested in a nearby link road to support the project.

However, Councillor Ben Bradley MP, leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, stressed last month how the region could benefit in this way.

He said: “If you look at the West Midlands, for example, it has an £8 billion growth plan built around HS2 and that’s a massive investment.

“We’d certainly benefit from being able to devolve national economic growth funding around a package like HS2 in Toton, or the East Midlands Freeport, and drive that in a joined-up way.

“It entirely depends on the scale of what people can agree because, to do something on that scale, it would require the whole region to be involved.”

Leaders across all 28 councils in the East Midlands have already been consulted on the plans.

Coun Bradley told full council last month he has received a positive response across the board, reflected in statements from a number of Nottinghamshire authorities.

At present, the region is simply exploring the idea and no timeframe has been set over when a deal could be achieved.

It comes off the back of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s levelling up speech at the end of July, aimed at encouraging local leaders to put forward plans.

But further updates on an East Midlands devolution package are expected in the autumn, when the Government publishes its levelling-up white paper.