Devolution and Us: our journey so far

Devolution, combined authorities and cuts are changing the local strategic landscape at an astonishing pace. Attitudes are moving on, I think, but as a sector, we often seem to think of devolution as someone else's business. A mix between a niche economic discussion and deckchair shuffling that will “add another layer of bureaucracy”. All in all, a lot of hot air. 

We're not the only ones to have thought this way, of course. And we need to clearly understand why we might get involved. 

Have a say

Fifteen months ago, we wanted to influence and understand what devolution means for our sector. At that time, the sector in Scotland were submitting practical, visionary and enviable responses to the Smith Commission; many focused on addressing health inequality. We were working on the Due North Inquiry into health equity at this point and this vision for devolution in Scotland really chimed with what we were (and still are) saying: how can we tackle health inequality in the long term if we don’t connect health initiatives to long term economic change? Groups in Scotland were pushing for a vision of devolution that looked, to us, to be core business for our sector!

We were equally conscious that devolution was bypassing much of the sector in the North West (England generally). We’d not had the chance to engage, debate and develop our own understanding of what devolution might mean, and how we might react and engage. We wanted to start discussions and get people thinking before we heard the bullet whistling past. So we asked a number of leading academics, think tanks and VCSE leaders, of course, what they see as the role of our sector in devolution and published them in Devolution, Our Devolution

Developing the right partnerships

We were getting very clear messages about the need to develop the right partnerships, at the right geography, connected to communities. So, in Liverpool City Region, this means supporting local sector agencies as they create a new City Region VCFSE partnership (VS6) of 15 infrastructure agencies covering social enterprise, community foundation, faith, a VCFSE employment and training consortium, disability and youth support agencies, volunteering and local CVS agencies, with links back to the 8,000 plus groups operating locally. 
 
Reflecting back on much of this now, on where we are as a sector, and where the world is heading, I’m clear that devolution must be fundamentally about community empowerment. I know that must seem obvious, but I’ve wandered around in a number of woods!!

An opportunity to think beyond boundaries and explore new answers

In many respects, NHS England's involvement in devolution has radically changed the agenda and the need to engage. The rest of the public sector – in particular health and social care leads – are paying very close attention now. Devolution (whether or not you end up with it!!) offers a way to think beyond individual boundaries and explore new answers. Given this, it’s pleasing to see that our sector's involvement is listed as part of the principles ('guidance only') by which NHS England agree any devolution proposal. 
“Ensuring that commissioners, providers, patients, carers and wider partners, including the voluntary and community sector, are able to work together to shape the future of the local area, supported by regular communication and engagement from development to implementation.”
In Greater Manchester, we were asked - by the sector - to help develop a VCSE Reference Group to support sector engagement in devolution planning discussions. Following our collective letter to the Interim Mayor and Greater Manchester system leaders, we have been greatly supported by the local health devolution leadership. Next steps, beyond signing off Terms of Reference, include developing a Memorandum of Understanding between the sector and the Combined Authority (Compact principles and NHS Principles will be important) and developing a fuller proposition from the sector about what we can offer to “the local area”. 
 
The truth is no-one can say what devolution will end up meaning. This was recently, neatly and modestly summarised by Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, at our conference as “We're all making this up as we go along.... join us and make it up with us!” 

Looking forward

In Greater Manchester, the big questions that really make sense to me are: what do we want our communities to look like in 50 years? And, how do we make things better? This immediately (rhetorically, perhaps at this point) changes the way we think about partnerships, local state/non-state relationships and the nature of permission. And it challenges us to re-imagine our own purpose in a way that goes beyond the immediate business case of devolution. Issues of leadership and creating – without losing track of our communities and beneficiaries - new identities run right through this process. 
 
However, the hard truth that circumscribes all of this are local cuts and a huge shortfall in the NHS’s budget. This is a race between ingenuity and disaster; one way or another, devolution makes the box bigger. 
 
Whatever “devolution” becomes, I believe that we must ask, and be part of the answer, to the key question that has always been at the heart of our sector: How can we make things better?

Warren Escadale, Chief Executive, Voluntary Sector North West
 
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