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23.02.17

Where next for devolution?

Source: PSE Feb/Mar 17

Andrew Walker, policy expert on devolution at the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU), explains why devolution in England needs a shot in the arm to get it back on track.

It is clear that the government, under Theresa May, is far more lukewarm when it comes to devolving power to city-regions and combined authorities than under David Cameron and George Osborne. 

True, there have been several seismic events over the past year that, to put it mildly, altered the political narrative somewhat. But the problems to which the ‘devolution revolution’ was an answer still remain. In fact, many of them have grown substantially. 

Economic 

There is still a desperate need for balanced economic growth across the UK. Some have argued that leaving the EU opens up considerable opportunities to rebalance the economy away from London and finance, towards other industries and services across the country. 

Yet the government’s Industrial Strategy green paper, published in January, was not as grand as some had hoped. The spatial governance framework of the combined authority model might be just what is needed to co-ordinate such a strategy, plan local infrastructure and support industry in a smarter way towards balanced growth. This was always hinted at in the Northern Powerhouse agenda and in the mayoral approach to devolution more generally. It shouldn’t be abandoned. 

Social 

The ‘holy grail’ issues of social and public policy have not gone away. We are still looking for a solution to the problems in health and social care, as well as impending problems, which are not so often talked about, in how councils afford to discharge their homelessness duties or continue to provide effective support for vulnerable children. 

Devolution, especially in Greater Manchester, was seen as a testing ground for new public service delivery models that, if successful, would pave the way for radical and positive change. That should not be abandoned either, especially as other solutions are not forthcoming. 

Political 

Finally, the events of the past year have thrown into sharp relief a number of social and political patterns, trends and divisions that were by no means new. It seems that social cleavages, which had previously helped to bind communities and align them along party political lines, have shifted quite significantly. There is a widespread sense of antipathy towards mainstream politics, as well as growing support for populist parties and solutions to many of our current problems. 

Many people feel completely disengaged from politics and disempowered by the operation of governments both national and local.

Could radical change in the governance of the UK be the answer to these questions? We know we are getting at least one enormous change when the UK exits the EU, but might many of the goals of Brexit (taking back control, a more dynamic and balanced economy, public services that meet people’s changing and growing needs) actually be better served by addressing governance within the UK and within England in particular? 

In these circumstances, it is more important than ever to ask what is next for devolution, leadership and local democracy in England. Several new combined authorities will choose their first directly-elected mayors in May this year, which LGiU will cover again, with a detailed focus on open local government. 

There is talk of new deals being put together in Cheshire and the north east, with changes also possible in Oxfordshire. But devolution as a project needs a shot in the arm. The government’s first annual ‘Devolution Report’, published in December, demonstrated that the actual funds being made available to combined authorities, though significant, is relatively small for the goals that are being aimed at. 

Arguably, more power and funding is needed locally to make this a success. Will this happen? A lot will depend on the track record established by these combined authorities. Greater Manchester and Birmingham are likely to be the two most widely cited by observers. Greater Manchester because that is the test case for health and social care integration across a single conurbation; Birmingham because that is the city where the Conservatives have their most substantial political foothold so far – and if Andy Street is elected mayor in a few months’ time, expect a lot more talk in the Treasury and beyond about the ‘Midlands Engine’. 

However, we should watch all city-regions with new devolved powers closely, as this could be the site of genuine economic, social and political innovation over the next few years. If we are not careful and allow our national attention to be diverted elsewhere, then the opportunity may slip through our fingers.

For more information

W: www.lgiu.org.uk

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@publicsectorexecutive.com

Comments

Eric   27/02/2017 at 15:49

The answer is simple: city-regions with mayors are needed, yes. But county-unitaries are needed too, especially as these cover most of the population of England. This would enable devolution across the whole country.

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