Whilst Devolution was on the agenda at the Conservative Party Conference, it’s fair to say that Brexit was the talk of the town. Theresa May launched in to “hard” Brexit speak from the get go. But devolution news and views were also being unearthed on the fringe and when Tories talk about devolution they do so in the context of attracting and embedding skills, inward investment and securing infrastructure. Whilst devolution was welcomed at #devoQT at CPC16, the audience and panel were less sure about Metro Mayors being needed.
At the conference John Lewis boss, Andy Street, and Cllr Sean Anstee, Leader of Trafford, both declared their hand to become Conservative Mayors, standing against Labour hopefuls Sion Simon and Andy Burnham respectively. While Anstee is a sixteen to one longshot, Street has a decent chance, according to Centre for Cities analysis. Both seem to grasp the potential for devolution in a post Brexit world but we need stronger signals coming out of No. 10, and civic leaders with big ambitions to lobby, promote and be part of the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine brands.
But devolution is not just about the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine. For Councillors Tim Warren (Bath and NE Somerset) and Rob Waltham (North Lincolnshire), who were also on our #devoQT panel, it’s about how they are not left behind but recognised as important components in UK PLC. They also need better connectivity, more investment in roads and infrastructure and need to attract, develop, sustain and grow skills. Demographic issues in rural areas like Lincolnshire and Bath/Somerset may need a UK wide industrial strategy, but devolving powers can be an important component of this. Time to be bold and seize the day. Devolution by its very nature should not be Whitehall led.