Government must retain accountability for devolution, NAO says

The National Audit Office (NAO) has advised that the government should ensure it remains accountable for the ‘new and experimental’ devolution deals being offered to local areas.

The auditors claimed that while devolution deals will stimulate economic growth and reform public services, the arrangements have not yet been trialed and could create ‘significant’ accountability implications. It recommended that the government should properly set out how and when powers will be transferred to mayors and how they will be balanced against public accountability.

In addition to clarifying where responsibility and accountability will fall, the NAO outlined that the government should identify the risks that could arise from devolution deals.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “Despite several iterations of deals, the government’s approach to English devolution still has an air of charting undiscovered territory. It is in explorer mode, drawing the map as it goes along.

“Some of the opportunities and obstacles are becoming clearer, but we still do not have a clear view of the landscape or, crucially, an idea of the destination.”

Meg Hillier, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, added: “Devolution does not absolve government of accountability. As more money is devolved it is vital that there is clear tracking of where and how effectively it is spent.

“It is not enough to say the details are still taking shape. The big questions need to be answered, including who taxpayers can hold to account. This is especially important when complex public services, like health, are devolved but where national service standards are to be maintained.”