England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Don’t drop the ball on devolution

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

It’s been an exciting couple of months. If the stakes weren’t so high one might almost say there has been a sort of soap opera quality to British politics recently.

We’ve had the high drama of the referendum campaign and the Brexit vote, David Cameron’s resignation, Theresa May’s coronation as prime minister, the rise and fall and rise again of Boris Johnson and George Osborne’s exile to backbench Siberia.

If you had plotted all that out at the beginning of the year, I’m not sure many people would have believed you.

Yet here we are. And as ever it’s up to local government to make sense of it all and keep things going.

As new ministers across government settle into their chairs – and possibly slope off for a delayed holiday – there’s a window of opportunity before they fully form their views on their new brief.

What should local government be pushing? The most obvious priority is (still) devolution. Oceans of ink have been drained on this – not least by me – but it remains unfinished business.

The outgoing secretary of state understood this. We had a front row view of some of the political drama when we held the Local Government APPG reception on the very day that Theresa May became Conservative leader.

Despite the hoopla off-stage, Greg Clark kindly kept what turned out to be his last official engagement as communities secretary.

He argued passionately that this is not the time to pause on devolution but to ‘double down’ on it. While the Brexit vote may have many causes and meanings, he said, it would be persevere to read it as demand for greater centralisation.

Quite right. There are many reasons why the country voted to leave the EU but one factor was certainly a sense of anger about decisions being made far away by people not directly accountable.

Devolution is a key part of resolving that just as it is a key part of growing local economies and improving public services.

But less than 48 hours later, Greg Clark was at BIS and Sajid Javid was moving in to Marsham Street.

Given that George Osborne, chief architect of the Northern Powerhouse, has also moved on, there’s bound to be some doubt about the momentum of devolution.

And, indeed, we know that some planned bids have been put back on the shelf while the areas concerned wait to see which way the wind blows.

The new secretary of state has indicated that he does not intend to unpick any of the done deals, but at the time of writing had not offered much insight into how he sees the project developing.

There’s a real risk here. Devolution is more or less a done deal in many of our great cities and barring something extraordinary we will see elections for mayors in May next year.

But there’s still huge potential in non-metropolitan areas especially in the counties where devolution progress has been, to put it diplomatically, more complicated.

Yet, these parts of the country have high potential both as engines of economic growth and as places in which creative re-imagining of the nature and function of local government can take place.

It would be a real missed opportunity if devolution stalled outside the cities and we ended up institutionalising a devo-divide between different parts of the country.

There would be an irony if a Brexit vote that was ostensibly about national sovereignty actually lead indirectly to the largest cities operating increasingly separately from the rest of the country.

How do we avoid this danger? We would certainly urge Sajid Javid to put his weight behind further devolution. Let’s see a commitment to the ‘double down devo’ his predecessor advocated.

But we in local government do not have to sit around waiting for the great man to make up his mind. Now is surely the time to be showing him what we can do?

Even if areas are not confident taking forward full-on devolution bids they need to be showing the secretary of state the range of their ambition and the scale of their creativity, outlining to him the ways they are planning to work together more effectively with or without him and the ways in which they could be more effective still with devolved powers.

There’s an opportunity here to shift the dial from devolution as a concession of powers from central government to devolution as a mind set that is about local government behaving and being different and more confident.

The worst thing of all would be to give the new secretary of state time and space to conclude that devolution isn’t working.

Instead, we need to be up and at him with all the great things local government can do and if that cuts into his summer holiday, so be it.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

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