Freeths Breakfast Event – “Devolution is a journey and nobody understands the destination or how to get there”

David Ralph, chief executive of the D2N2 LEP, (photo copyright Toby Neal)

Professionals from across the East Midlands gathered at Freeths’ Nottingham office last week to hear an expert panel discuss the prospect of devolution – with the consensus being that uncertainty still reigns when it comes to the proposed North Midlands Devolution deal.

The breakfast event, sponsored by Freeths Initiate Group in conjunction with Arup, also placed emphasis on the impact devolution could have on construction and the built environment.

John Kelly, senior construction associate at Freeths, opened the discussion by saying that a devolution deal could have a “profound effect” on the business community and local authorities before going on to explain what devolution means legally.

He said: “Presently, powers are centralised in Westminster. The government intends to decentralise some of them, so devolution is essentially a transfer of powers. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 makes this process possible. Devolution is seen as an effective way to create jobs and growth, but people need to be engaged if we are to grasp the opportunity”.

David Ralph, chief executive of the D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership, then went on to detail what has already been achieved in the East Midlands – and what is yet to be done.

He said: “There is no agreement about the geography a potential North Midlands deal would cover. We are currently defining the region as Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, Derby and Derbyshire.

“I am not so sure the government is motivated to achieve a North Midlands Devolution Deal. They are more keen on Manchester, Leeds and so on and we continue to lose out on public investment due to the prioritising of London and the South East.

“For the government, devolution is essentially a drive to ‘get more for less’. For local authorities it is about managing their estates better and managing social care. The whole process is underpinned by economics, but the motives for local authorities are more about gaining control of resources.

“The deal as it stands hinges on the question of whether you have a mayor or not – and this is the key. There are a number of Conservative councils in the area that are being put off by the idea of a Labour mayor, and there is some uncertainty around Erewash and the Amber Valley. That means there is a gap between the two major cities in the region. I don’t think we’ve made the strongest possible case for ourselves. We’ve been weak on putting forward propositions about why we want to do this.

“Ultimately, devolution is a journey and nobody understands the destination or how to get there”.

Neal Byers, senior planner at Arup and former lead on transport and infrastructure devolution for the Sheffield City Region combined authority, discussed what has already been done and what has worked best up north.

He said: “Sheffield has done four deals now, and we’ve secured over £320m of Local Growth Funding – with over £210m specifically for infrastructure. The city has gained a degree of flexibility, and new opportunities are constantly emerging.

“What’s behind our success? A lot of it is public-sector orientated, and integration has been key – for example, we look at transport schemes in terms of growth, not just transport. So we’re thinking ‘what other sorts of investment are needed around this?’”

John Read, associate director at Arup in Nottingham, added: “There are lots of opportunities in the East Midlands such as HS2, but it is difficult to achieve a consensus. However, Leicestershire might strengthen the proposition moving forward”.

Abigaile Bromfield, associate director and Midlands planning team leader at Arup, said: “We need to demonstrate additionality and present strong evidence about what we need. The private sector will have a key role to play in driving any devolution deal”.