The Government’s devolution agenda is creating a dramatic change in the role of local government and the power of the town hall. Across the UK local politicians are being empowered to spend billions of pounds, shape public service delivery and create growth. There are real opportunities to bring decision making closer to the people affected. But there are risks too that as we create new seats of power we recreate old inequalities and biases that too often exclude women from power and the benefits of growth.
The best way to ensure that women’s voices are heard is to make sure they are at the table when decisions are made. However, Fawcett Society research found that in the Northern Powerhouse the most powerful roles remain dominated by men. Of 134 senior leadership roles, 96 (or 72%) of these are occupied by men. Whilst 40% of councillors in the region are women, only 21% of leaders and current elected mayors are female.
We are not the only ones to be concerned about this. The recently launched DivaManc is a group aimed to ensure women’s voices are heard in the Manchester devolution debate. When the devolution deal was signed by George Osborne in 2014, no woman was present in the photo as the only female leader was on holiday.
New powers for local government must come with increased responsibility to ensure they look like the communities they represent. That means increasing the number of women in senior roles and the evidence is clear that diversity leads to better decision making. When in power women are more likely to address issues such as childcare and domestic violence. If devolution is to succeed the same attention must be paid to creating equal and inclusive regional economies, that close the gender pay gap and allow women to participate on an equal footing, as to growth overall.
Many of the devolution deals have focussed on the building of physical infrastructure – roads, rail and internet capacity – to boost business. But just as vital is investing in the care infrastructure that will enable more women to fully participate in the paid economy. Devolution is an opportunity for regions to boost their local economies and to make them more competitive. But this can only be achieved by addressing the inequalities within these regions that prevent women from achieving their full potential and by ensuring women, from diverse backgrounds, have equal representation.
To explore how we can achieve that and the impact of devolution on gender equality the Fawcett Society and the LGiU have launched a one-year Commission asking “Does Local Government Work for Women?” The Commission, funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, will chaired by Dame Margaret Hodge MP and Cllr Gillian Keegan and will be reporting next year. Next month we will be in Birmingham for our second Commission meeting examining what are the barriers to 50:50 representation for women in local government.