Unlocking local powers? Thoughts on Devon and Torbay’s devolution deal

Map of Devon, UK, with main cities and towns marked up.

This week saw the launch of a six-week public consultation into the proposed Devon and Torbay Combined County Authority following the announcement of a landmark devolution deal at the start of this year.

The proposed deal, in short, shifts responsibility for critical decisions about local communities and businesses to a new locally accountable body. A mix of 12 local councils including county, districts, and a unitary authority are involved in this process.

The government chose Devon and Torbay as one of a few areas to form a combined authority without needing an elected mayor or any changes to local council structures. Given the number and different types of councils already operating in the county, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it proposed no change here.

But how would another layer of local governance work alongside this patchwork in practice? And what would it do? Here’s what we know so far.

Combined authority powers for Devon

Powers on the bill to transfer to the new combined authority include direct control of adult education. This move could create up to 50,000 new training and retraining opportunities by 2030. With local strategies highlighting shortages of skills across Devon, this could be a game-changer if successful.

The government also proposes to transfer £16m to invest in new green jobs, homes, skills, and business growth to accelerate Devon and Torbay’s transition to net-zero.

On the public transport front, investment in service improvements and a single ticketing system are on the cards.

Devon’s largest city is notable by its absence from the deal, however. Labour-led Plymouth City Council withdrew its support for the combined authority last year, citing fears that it would lose powers and funding. With more than 260,000 residents and an economy worth more than £5bn, Plymouth remains a key part of Devon’s future and an important partner for the combined authority.

Will devolution work for Devon?

Devolution has a decent track record of delivering in some places, while it continues to bed-in in others.

Greater Manchester and West Midlands have the most high-profile examples of visible leaders in its two Andys (Burnham and Street). The combined authorities serving these city regions deliver transformational agendas across health, skills and transport, while the leaders bang the drum for their regions on a national stage.

Cornwall has an investment fund and more than 11,000 businesses accessing business support programmes.

Liverpool City Region established the MTicket for unlimited day travel across Merseyside for under 18s, and half price bus travel for apprentices.

And in West Yorkshire, £13.5m secured through the devolution deal helped more than 10,000 people made redundant during Covid-19 access training or find new work.

These are all tangible results that may not have been possible, or happened more slowly, without a devolution deal.

On paper, it sounds like a good thing. Red tape and convoluted decision-making processes have too often slowed the pace of change within local communities. With more democratic governance and funding in the hands of our councillors, real change could happen, with tough issues tackled with practical solutions.

And there is already some good joint working between local authorities, with Devon’s recently established Housing Commission an example of this in action.

But Plymouth’s withdrawal highlights the challenge and importance of effective working between partners. We’ve seen in the West of England, where North Somerset withdrew from a deal it helped establish in 2017, that discord between local leaders challenges the devolution model. Even here, though, progress is on transport and regeneration around Temple Meads is happening.

Ministers, businesses and residents won’t thank local leaders if personal rivalries get in the way of positive change.

Making it work for Devon

As an East Devon resident, who works for a business that’s invested in the region, I’d certainly like to see improved (read: reliable) public transport, greater housing provision, and the right amenities, facilities, and infrastructure in place around it. A combined authority could create a stronger voice to make better decisions in the region.

I will follow with interest, and indeed feed back into, the public consultation process, ahead of the results being considered by the combined authority in April and a submission of a final Deal proposal to Government.

The consultation is underway and available here.

If agreed by councils, the aim is for the combined authority to come into being this year. If that happens, many eyes will be keen to see what action is taken and the results this will bring.

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