Debate Opinion An opportunity to radically reconfigure the system Let me share a dilemma of local leadership. Haringey has the dubious honour of being the most unequal borough in London. An area of just 11 square miles, the borough stretches from Highgate Village, one of London’s most sought-after neighbourhoods, to Northumberland Park, which was until recently the most deprived ward in the capital. The life expectancy gap between our most and least well off residents is almost eight years and is reinforced by huge differences in household incomes. Child obesity rates are much higher than the England average and mental illness runs at four times the rate expected in a population our size. My number one priority is to tackle the inequality that blights the lives of too many of our residents and prevents them from realising their potential. But while this may sound fairly straightforward, the fact is that much of our public sector is designed for a bygone age – centrally determined with little regard for local or regional difference. Many of us would argue a top down, Whitehall-knows-best approach was not especially effective at tackling twentieth century problems but in today’s more complex world, it’s simply not fit for purpose. Hence local councils, in their roles as convenors of people, services and place, are so keen on the devolution agenda - it's about being equipped with the tools needed to do the job. Far from being a vague constitutional concept, devolution is really about public sector transformation: ensuring public services are configured in a way that delivers the best possible outcomes for children, families and communities. Take skills. While Haringey’s schools are improving rapidly, outcomes for our school leavers remain uncertain. For us to be a fully employed borough today, 17,500 more residents would need to find jobs. And this is where the system, as currently configured, works against us. The Skills Funding Agency currently spends £550m in London. Yet the London employment rate trails the national rate and as a city we’re training a huge surplus of hairdressers while there's a serious shortage of those trained in modern construction skills - so much so that it’s holding back our house-building ambitions. Employers in the STEM sector struggle to fill almost 50 per cent of vacancies due to a lack of skills. In fact 25 per cent of all London vacancies are attributed to skills shortages. Providers are incentivised by how many learners they get through the door and how many qualifications they achieve, rather than the outcomes they deliver. System change is required - hence the announcement that skills funding is set to transfer to the Mayor of London is a welcome step forward. It can be tempting to present devolution as an alternative to austerity. But despite the challenges, it is a mistake to think about devolution simply as a means of lessening the impact of existing cuts or future service demands. Instead devolution provides an opportunity to radically reconfigure the system and link public service reform to growth. Health devolution is a good example here. The national debate about health is dominated by the NHS. But for most people, the question of how healthy they are is driven by local environmental and lifestyle factors - do they have a healthy diet and enough exercise? The same is true of mental health and wellbeing - do they have a fulfilling life, with ways to reduce stress? Enough social interaction? A secure home? Something meaningful to do? These are the issues that determine health and wellbeing for most people and they are best tackled at local level, where environmental factors can make it harder (walk past a fast food outlet on your way home every day?) or easier (great green space near your home where you can exercise?) to be healthy. Curiously, as the rest of central Government is devolving power, DfE has been centralising it for some time. An ideological approach to reducing local authorities’ influence on the local education system risks reversing some of the enormous progress we’ve made in delivering better outcomes. Good heads and teachers know that a school is not an island - what goes on, and how successful its pupils are, depends hugely on how good their early years or primary provision were, what’s going on in their family and beyond – and schools divorced from the wider local system will find it ever harder to achieve the results that national systems and inspection frameworks demand of them. I’m proud that almost all Haringey's schools work together and with the local authority as well as other partners locally to ensure children and young people are able to succeed in their education. Of course this is harder when schools are part of national academy chains that don't recognise the need for strong local partnership, so building local multi-academy trusts will be important if we are to retain that whole-system focus on enabling all children to succeed. While many of us in local government are enthusiastic proponents for devolution, in the wider world there remains significant scepticism. The most common concern I hear is that devolution will lead to postcode lottery. On this we have to recognise that centralised public services already deliver regional variations. In fact, international comparators show higher levels of decentralisation lead to lower levels of regional inequality. Health is of course the key battleground - and again devolution can help provide the answer. I’m not arguing that stroke or cancer care should be localised - the clinical case for regional and national specialism here is well proven. But for many of the other conditions that are causing the current crisis in A&E, for instance, a local approach is essential. Amongst many instances of high attendance at A&E are families with children who either don't know when to go to A&E and when they can safely wait for a GP appointment, or are not confident managing conditions like asthma at home. All these factors are intimately connected to how well the local system of primary and social care is working, and a set of cultural dynamics that can never be changed by Whitehall diktat. Devolution will reduce the likelihood of postcode lotteries so long as we are clear about the frameworks and the outcomes we are trying to achieve for our residents. Applying the same approach across the country – as was the case with the original version of the work programme – is a good example of how a ‘one size fits all’ approach doesn’t work. We need a varied approach that takes into account the differences in educational outcomes; mortality rates; household income and access to jobs and skills in order to try to equalise outcomes. In a world where there is less money, we now we need to work much harder to understand causes, innovate and join up. All of us who are committed to the public sector should be champions for the devolution agenda because, fundamentally, it is a means of accelerating and deepening public sector reform. Ultimately, it will grow new partnerships and help develop services that are closer and more attuned to the people who use them.