England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Place is the crucial lens

Photo by Juliet Furst on Unsplash

In his latest column for The Municipal Journal, Jonathan Carr-West considers the assertion that devolution is ‘dead in the water’, and emphasises the need for a Levelling Up agenda that accounts for people and places. 

In my Viewpoint column last month I argued there was an important tension between a centralised grant-based version of levelling up and real devolution that both levels places up and keeps them levelled up by building real capacity and creating enduring strengths. Levelling up without devolution cannot be successful in the long term.

Sadly, things don’t appear to be moving in that direction. The Devolution White Paper will now be no more than a footnote in the Levelling Up strategy and we had news this month that the Local Government Association (LGA) considers devolution ‘dead in the water’ and will no longer be lobbying for it.

Proof – were any needed – that the UK Government is not poring over my every word in these columns but, undeterred, I want to develop the argument further to look at how we might make levelling up and devolution work together.

Place is the crucial lens. Place and ‘place-shaping’ as a focus of policymaking has come in and out of fashion, but right now it is having a bit of a moment, despite or because of the fact that the UK Government’s policy does not appear to be framed around a sense of place.

Last week at LGIU, we launched our Local Democracy Research Centre, a new initiative that seeks to generate a different form of engagement between academia and local government practitioners by co-creating new research and insights.

The launch paper, written with the Mile End Institute and supported by Research England, called for a new Settlement for Place which shows how the Levelling Up agenda could be made to work. Some of the key features of this settlement include:

  • Giving local leaders the tools they need to level up and to recover from the pandemic by revitalising growth, building houses and fixing social care.
  • Ending the ringfenced capital funding which drives fragmentation and short-termism and allowing councils to coordinate spend around place and wellbeing.
  • Giving the English regions a stronger voice in national policymaking (we have argued for many years for a local government leader’s senate).

But as Arianna Giovannini of De Montford University argued at the launch event, the elephant in the room here is central government. It doesn’t show any desire to do any of these things.

We can rehearse the reasons for this until we are blue in the face: not least the fact that while we see devolution as a straight transfer of power from the centre to the local, rather than a mutually empowering exchange, it will always feel diminishing to central government and it will always resist it.

We have a clear and compelling account of what post-devolution local government would be like. Perhaps we have not paid enough attention to developing a positive vision of post-devolution Whitehall?

Should we give up then? Certainly, if we look only to central government that might be our conclusion, as it clearly was for the LGA. But if we look at what is happening locally, a different, and more hopeful, picture, emerges.

The report brings together numerous case studies of how councils are themselves adopting innovative place-based strategies for growth and recovery: whether that is Barking & Dagenham’s Social Progress Index, Bradford’s Local Authority Research System, the Borderlands partnership, Redbridge’s Growth Commission, the Tees Valley Strategic Economic Plan, or the many, many more we didn’t have space to feature. In all these instances we see local authorities making place the key mobilising concept around which to organise spending, service delivery and community engagement and getting real results.

Government can choose to go with the grain of these initiatives and give them added impetus through the sort of place settlement we describe. Or, it can choose not to. But it cannot crush them entirely. And this is grounds for optimism. After all, policies (and Governments) inevitably come and go, but places endure.

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

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