Devolution in Cumbria

Cumbria Third Sector Network has been asked to provide some initial thoughts on the devolution of power from central government to more local areas in England, and the potential implications for local third sector organisations and communities. I thought it would be useful to share some of those thoughts with you, and I’d be interested to hear your views.

Would we benefit from devolution?
As we know, Cumbria has often suffered from London based power and policy making. Our largely rural county is sparsely populated, with many communities a long distance from services (such as libraries, hospitals and public transport) that others take for granted.

Here are some examples of problems caused by centralisation:

Health Services
Current thinking hardly mentions public services other than local authority; health services are only mentioned in the most radical proposals such as Devo Max – Devo Manc. Hospital services have become increasingly specialised, favouring a “centre of excellence” serving a large population over smaller, more general services. This may work well in cities; it is less appealing in rural areas where it often means patients travelling over 2 hours by car (or much longer by public transport) to reach their closest service.

It is unclear if devolution would give power to make local decisions over healthcare (whilst the local CCG currently commissions services, it must still meet standards based on urban areas) or the funding to deliver these services.

Online Service Provision
There is an assumption that many public services could be delivered online, reducing the need to provide offices and staff in rural areas, and cutting costs. For example, DWP now places greater emphasis on online access to services, and has begun to close local job centres. Clients in the most rural areas, who may lack internet access at home, have faced long journeys on public transport to reach a public library with internet access (a situation that has been compounded by library closures, lack of privacy and 1 hour limits on booked library slots), or have been faced with attempting to complete complex forms on a mobile phone with poor network coverage.

Implications for Cumbria’s Third Sector
These discussions on devolution are happening within the context of significant cuts. In particular, expenditure that is not a statutory responsibility (such as subsidies to rural bus services) is being cut, with an explicit expectation that the third sector and local communities will fill the gaps. At the same time, many third sector organisations are struggling with a reduction in funding (because of, for example, the loss of Northern Rock Foundation funding and changes in legal aid eligibility) and fewer volunteers (as people retire later or families need both parents in paid employment to meet household expenses). A number of organisations have closed as a result.

This would need to be taken into account in further discussions on devolution, as the implications are not yet clear. A more “joined up” approach to the planning of public services could reduce the demands on the sector, and in some cases could lead to third sector organisations being commissioned to deliver services, but neither of these is a certainty.

Where would power best be devolved to?
Because of our low population (around half a million people), Cumbria often has a weak voice in national or regional bodies. Devolution of power to the regions, or “city regions” would need to include mechanisms to ensure the voice of rural communities can be heard.

Devolution of significant power to Cumbria would require a structure capable of holding that power, and effectively planning and delivering local services. There is talk of “combined authorities” – voluntary groupings of local authorities that can pool responsibilities and receive delegated powers from central government. The feasibility of that structure would need to be explored across the 7 existing local authorities.

Cumbria County Council’s current budget consultation document reopens debate on a unitary authority (or possibly two unitary authorities) for Cumbria, suggesting this could produce significant savings.

Our sector’s experience is that the current partnership arrangements would need significant strengthening before they would be capable of taking on more power, and the simplicity and (long term) costs savings of unitary authority status has some appeal, particularly if coupled with a strengthening of the most local engagement structures.

Benefiting from Devolution
The benefits of devolution would depend on the powers that are devolved, sufficient funding being available to the devolved administrations, and the area to which they are devolved. There is as yet little indication of government thinking about this.

If power were to be devolved to English regions, it may remain concentrated in large cities within those regions. Significant benefits for Cumbria only seem likely if power is held more locally; however Cumbria is likely to be much smaller than most areas seeking to hold local powers.

Holding power at the local level would be the most likely to develop services that work for rural communities, but the economic implications are less clear.

So, much food for thought – what do you think?

Karen Bowen
Chief Officer