Editor's Comment

13.12.14

Trust in town halls

Source: Public Sector Executive Dec/Jan 2015

George Osborne said something interesting during his Autumn Statement. “Six months ago people would have said it was completely impossible to get the 10 local authorities of Greater Manchester to come together with the government to agree a major devolution of power to the city and the creation of a new directly elected mayor.”

What was most striking about this passage, actually, was not the ambition but the lack of it. This government has supposedly had a localist and devolutionary agenda since Day One (more in theory than in practice, of course). So why, four years in, would the agreement of a package of devolution measures to a city-region that so clearly wanted it and deserved it be so “impossible” to imagine?

Osborne made it sound like Greater Manchester’s 10 councils were angry tribes at war, but in fact they have worked together professionally and effectively as a ‘combined authority’ for years, in a model others are now belatedly copying. They also agreed a £1.2bn city deal with Greg Clark, one of the first wave of eight areas to do so. 

The mayor is a different issue of course, and one rejected (narrowly) by the voters of one of those 10 councils, Manchester itself, as recently as 2012. A non-scientific newspaper survey at that time suggested a majority would back a mayor for the city-region however, and now – without the pesky hindrance of an actual vote – they have what they (and George Osborne) want. 

There have been innumerable reports in the last few years about the magic effects of devolution: some evidence-based and some little more than fantasies. What is clear is that the UK is far too centralised compared to international comparator countries, and that when given the chance, cities and regions tend to make effective decisions. Power should be exercised, and money spent, at the lowest practicable level – which will sometimes be in the parish hall, sometimes the city council chamber and sometimes in London or even, dare I say it, Brussels. But far too often, Whitehall clings to its power and prerogatives for its own purposes, not for the good of our towns and cities and the people who live in them.

Local government in England saw its opportunity with the Scottish referendum result and jumped on it to demand devolution. Can it really save the billions of pounds that the LGA says it can? Can public services really be ‘re-wired’ from the ground up, if only Whitehall would let go of the purse strings and easy up on the regulations, ring-fencing and rationing? Judging by the scale of the cuts to come, demanding devolved budgets may end up a poisoned chalice. 

There is plenty about devolution and public service redesign throughout this edition of Public Sector Executive – I’m sure you’ll find plenty of thought-provoking articles to get your teeth into. 

Adam Hewitt

Editor

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