What now for devolution? It’s hard to see Jim O’Neill’s resignation as a positive sign.
Already it feels as though wind has gone out of its sails somewhat. Theresa May has expressed uncertainty about elected mayors. DCLG is thinking of relaxing the timetable for mayoral elections. Sajid Javid has taken the North East deal ‘off the table’ after councils didn’t ratify it.
The secretary of state has been frustratingly silent about how he sees the future of this agenda (or indeed any other local government agenda), but the mood music from the department is that while they will continue to support existing bids, new bids will not be a huge priority.
In many parts of the country potential bids were shelved following the Brexit vote and they’re certainly not coming off the shelf just yet.
Despite public protestations of unity, George Osborne’s launch of a new think tank to promote the Northern Powerhouse hints at a concern about this part of his legacy.
Lord O’Neill’s resignation letter states that the Northern Powerhouse ‘appears’ to be commanding the prime minister’s personal attention ‘despite speculation to the contrary’. However, his resignation from the Government and the Conservative Party is unlikely to dampen this speculation.
Many will interpret this as another nail in the coffin of the Osborne legacy.
It would be a tragedy if the devolution agenda fell foul of political point scoring. We need to return power to our great cities and county regions in order to grow sustainable economies, deliver effective public services and give ordinary citizens a stake and a say in the future of their communities.
That’s much bigger than one man’s political project. Indeed it should go beyond party politics.
We should all hope that Lord O’Neill is right and that this agenda remains in safe and committed hands.
Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.