England & Wales Brexit, Democracy, devolution and governance

The Conservatives have gone walkabout on devolution


What to expect from Conservative conference? There’s a growing sense that the time has come for the Government to say something, anything, about how it sees the future.


The Prime Minister will surely want to say more than just that “Brexit means Brexit” if she is to reassure the country that she is indeed the steady hand at the tiller she appears to be.


Mrs May has already announced that Article 50 will be triggered by the end of March, that she will repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and pass all existing EU laws into UK law. A measure designed to give business and the rest of us confidence that nothing too unexpected will happen too fast.


But sensible though it may be, this still feels more like a defensive measure than a proactive one. Will it be enough to dispel the sense of a government that is defined more by what it is not than by what it is?


In my neck of the policy woods, local government, this feels particularly acute. For the last couple of years there has been a clear direction of travel driven by DCLG and by George Osborne at the Treasury: more devolution, more local powers and concomitantly less money from central government and more emphasis on local income.


This agenda was imperfect in many ways, notably a lack of detail about redistribution mechanisms and insufficient fiscal devolution to fully compensate for the loss of central funding. Nonetheless, we knew where we were heading.


It should also be noted that in the years since 2010, we have had in Eric Pickles and Greg Clark, Secretaries of State who, notwithstanding the many disagreements the sector may have had with them, had a deep knowledge and experience of local government.


Things feel very different now. Sajid Javid has maintained a gnomic silence on most issues. He has talked about the importance of housing supply, telling the Financial Times that he will be “very tough” on councils that do not allocate enough land and that he sees DCLG as “an economic department” whose role is to drive housing growth and regional productivity.


Well yes, it is that of course. But it’s also much more than that. Central government needs to support councils in reforming and delivering local services and in giving people and communities the ability to help shape their local areas.


Of this we hear nothing. The Government denies that it has lost interest in the Northern Powerhouse. However, George Osborne’s creation of a new think tank to protect this part of his legacy and Jim O’Neil’s departure from Government are not positive signs. And, there’s a wider devolution agenda to consider. Those places that already have deals will carry on, but in many parts of the country outside the major cities those deals are either hitting roadblocks or being quietly shelved. There’s a real risk that we end up with a semi-devolved country that entrenches gaps in growth and productivity.


We need the Secretary of State to send a clear signal about his intentions in this regard, how he sees the future of the devolution agenda and the principles and frameworks he intends to drive it with. Or we need him to send a very clear signal that central government is getting out the way and leaving local government to it.


The worst case scenario would be micromanagement within a strategic vacuum.


Let us hope that things are clearer by the end of the Conservative conference than they are now.