Our members know from bitter experience that the highly centralised political economy of the UK has left too many parts of the country behind. Recent reports suggest that the gap between regions is widening yet further.
As such, the TUC has long been a champion for a more dynamic approach to regional development – enhancing democracy and accountability through bringing decision-making closer to communities, designing and delivering public services more responsive to local needs, harnessing the voice and partnership of public service workers and the people they serve and stimulating economic growth through local control over infrastructure and an active industrial strategy.
But with the opportunities come significant risks. Many of us see a gap between the government’s ‘northern powerhouse’ rhetoric and a reality of massive cuts to public services, reform to local government funding that may exacerbate regional inequalities, disproportionate public sector job losses and a fledgling industrial strategy that needs to be bolder – good intentions alone won’t get us very far.
And we are worried that the devolution deals agreed to date seem light on both resources and democracy, characterised by backroom deals between council leaders and Treasury officials with few stopping to ask what local people want out of it, while imposing directly-elected Mayors on communities that had previously rejected the model.
The TUC is therefore taking a pragmatic and constructive approach to devolution, which seeks to strengthen social partnership in order to maximise those opportunities while addressing the legitimate concerns that many of our members share.
If economic development and public service reform are to be devolved, it is essential that trade unions have a voice in the debate at the devolved level.
Our vision for devolution sees a key role for trade unions and other civil society partners in shaping the agenda – what is devolution for – and developing the relationships to make that happen.
We are working closely with the leaders of new Combined Authorities to help embed that social partnership approach. We already have a Workforce Engagement Board in Greater Manchester bringing council leaders, senior managers and unions together to work together on strategic issues, with a primary focus on public service reform.
We expect to see similar initiatives in other areas soon. There will be different versions of social partnership depending on the priorities, politics and relationships in each case. But we want to see the principle of social partnership at the heart of devolution in all parts of the country.
That’s why we are working with a number of partners to make this happen, from council leaders to relevant Ministers at the Cabinet Office and DCLG, from think-tanks and academics to civil society organisations. Institutional arrangements matter but this will be made to work through the strength of those relationships and the value that they will bring.
Paul Nowak, Deputy General Secretary, TUC
The TUC and Association of Public Service Excellence are jointly hosting a workshop ‘Making Devolution Work for All’ at Labour’s Local Government Conference on Saturday 18 February, with Simon Letts, Leader of Southampton City Council, Pete Lowe, Vice-Chair of West Midlands Combined Authority and Leader of Dudley MBC, Judith Blake, Chair of Core Cities Group and Leader, Leeds City Council and Jim McMahon MP for Oldham.