For those eagerly awaiting to hear the next steps for English devolution, Philip Hammond’s first budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer left something to be desired. The devolution agenda factored little into a Budget that focused on protecting the British economy from a potentially bruising Brexit, reviewing (and unreviewing) NICs and, well, re-announcing things from the Autumn Statement. With a grand total of 6 mentions of ‘local government’ and one of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ this was not the devo-heavy speech of the Osborne-era.
Of course, there are those who are right to conclude that the Chancellor and Prime Minister are simply preoccupied with Brexit and a potential second independence referendum in Scotland. Doubtless political energy has been consumed since the first reading of the European Notification of Withdrawal Bill, but the politics of the Budget highlight some of the key differences between Hammond and his predecessor.
James Reed, political editor of the Yorkshire Post, was right to point out the absurdity of the Chancellor’s announcement that the £690m allocated to improve local transport regions will be done so on a ‘competitive basis’. Surely this is antithetical to devolution? If funding is dispensed on demonstration of economic success and not on need, London and other economic hotspots will continue to receive funding at the expense of much of the rest of England. The Chancellor needs to embrace devolution on its own terms, not invoke it to perpetuate politics as usual.
Sadly, the Budget made no mention of HS3 or the improvement of connections across the North, something which has dominated headlines and which all the candidates in the northern mayoral elections have sought to promote. Yes, there were words of support for the regions that will be seizing their ‘economic destiny’ but this language is somewhat jarring with talk of a “people’s devolution” dominating public debate.
Two specific aspects of the Budget are worthy of mention. The Chancellor joined Sadiq Khan, housing minister Gavin Barwell and Cllr Claire Kober, Chair of London Councils in signing a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ – lauded as a ‘new deal’ for the capital – it provides for further devolution of powers over transport, health, infrastructure, criminal justice and skills and employment to be given to the mayor and the Greater London Assembly. It largely reiterated promises already made in the 2016 Autumn Statement but nonetheless demonstrates the continued vitality of London devolution.
Secondly, the Midlands Engine Strategy, signed off by Hammond the day after the budget, will provide £392m of government investment to build the region’s infrastructure and local economy. It is indicative of the governmental shift in focus from the North to the ‘Midlands Engine’. It comes perhaps in recognition of the fact that the West Midlands mayoral race is as far North as the Tories dare go with any hope of victory.
So, what does this mean for all things devo? Has the dynamism left the devolution agenda? Well, not so much left as shifted its centre of gravity. It is telling that the day after the country looked to the Chancellor and his little red briefcase, Yorkshire council leaders (South Yorkshire aside) met to discuss a potential pan-Yorkshire deal. Westminster should no longer be the only locus of power.
Of course, no one could argue that the delay of the Sheffield City Region elections, the collapse of the North East deal or the anxieties felt by Lancashire and Norfolk councils have not presented considerable blots on the devo landscape. However, after 4th May and the election of 6 new metro mayors the nature of the debate will fundamentally change.
The case of London is again instructive. When Ken Livingstone became the first Mayor of London, the role didn’t boast many of the powers Sadiq Khan wields today. But the inaugural Mayor understood that getting into power didn’t represent the culmination of devolved politics but rather its beginning. From a position of elected authority, Livingstone could agitate for greater devolution to the capital; and it worked. The six incoming metro mayors, whoever they may be, would do well to remember Livingstone’s example. If they do, we will be seeing the shape of English politics changing to a far greater degree than could be achieved by any Westminster budget.