To get devolution deals over the line there is a significant amount of effort involved in ratifying them.  The first problem is that a “minded-to” deal is effectively a done deal, with very limited scope for maneuver and a big cash incentive for them to complete.  This is not an ideal starting point for meaningful engagement with those impacted.

In legal terms this all comes down to a decision by the Secretary of State. Or, more precisely, “Subject to ratification of the deal by all partners and the statutory requirements including, public consultation, the consents of councils affected, and parliamentary approval of the secondary legislation implementing the provisions of this deal”.  Problem number two, therefore, is that the consultation is a proxy – worse still, must be orchestrated by a group of partners who might have competing interests or stances.  Chances are that even the composition of the deal partners is questionable.

There are also problems with how these consultations are framed and thus perceived. Devolution consultations are not on the relative merits of devolution. Instead, they focus on the scheme (although a key question about the suitability of the deal is fair game). The scheme sets out how the devolution deal will be implemented.    

Consultations tend to stick to a well-rehearsed formula, soliciting feedback on priorities and the various functions and powers.  One of the more recent deals was York and North Yorkshire . Their consultation ran from 21st October to 16th December 2022 and received around 2,000 responses.  A rather dismal response rate given the population affected – even the best (West Yorkshire) only revieved 4,400 responses.  I’m proud to say I had a hand in that one.

However, what was unforgivable in the York/North Yorkshire consultation was the lack of representativeness.  Despite some focused activity, only 3% of respondents were aged between 20 and 29 (only 4% between 30-39 years old).  The majority of respondents (47%) who provided information were aged between 50 and 74.  Moreover, of those providing responses about their ethnicity, only four respondents were Asian and only one respondent reported to be black.

Thankfully, this didn’t go unchallenged.  Ex-ombudsman Anne Seex told a council meeting it was clear that those who took part in the consultation exercise in North Yorkshire had seen “more disadvantages than advantages” to the deal. She said advice from the Consultation Institute it had employed to help run the consultation that the consultation had been good was “a case of a private company marking its own homework”.  As it happens, I agree – I stepped away from this work (or rather it was removed form me) when I raised the same point whilst working for tCI.

So, is this an exercise in marketing?  What can be done better?

My answer is “yes” and “everything”.   Stakeholders need to be involved much earlier in the formation of deals and framing needs to be a whole lot clearer (what are the disbenefits?).  From the dealmaker side, the only real option is to proceed or retreat and the latter is very unlikely.  In other words, lots of engagement for very little opportunity of change. 

It’s hard to justify such as big decision with so few inputs – representativeness needs to improve but that won’t happen naturally without a meaningful process.  One could argue that a narrow response is favorable to a positive outcome.  Stuck in this doom loop, a referendum may have been a better option if it were allowed. 

All eyes will now be on the next rounds, such as the Greater Lincolnshire Deal.  Let’s hope they can convince residents that it’s actually worth getting involved in the conversation.