What’s next for devolution? Don’t ask the Queen…
If a week is a long time in politics, then the next two years are likely to feel like an eternity for Parliamentarians. What ought to be a bumper two-year legislative package feels rather lightweight, with the Bills set out in the Queen’s Speech either Brexit related, continuity or vanilla legislation. Gone are manifesto pledges on a devolution framework, Metro Mayors and local government, along with most other domestic policy.
The headline news that the national roll out of 100% business rates growth retention and the abolition of revenue support grant have been dropped leaves local government across the country unclear over future finances and genuine fiscal devolution unlikely. The pilot areas for the business rates scheme (the Metro Mayor areas) are expected to continue with it. The continuation of the revenue support grant will be a relief, given it is a significant source of income, worth £7bn for 2016-17. Proposals over social care have also been watered down to a consultation, which, given their toxicity on the doorstep, is hardly surprising.
For a Queen’s Speech dominated by Brexit, there was little detail on how devolved administrations would contribute to negotiations. Nicola Sturgeon thought it ‘unthinkable’ that the Repeal Bill might not require the legislative consent of the Holyrood and Carwyn Jones argued that the programme threatens to curtail Welsh powers in the way it returns responsibilities.
Despite Wales joining Scotland in having a ‘reserved matters model’ (where they have assumed control over powers not explicitly claimed by Westminster), it seems unlikely this assumption will extend to repatriated EU laws. The speech explicitly promised to ‘replicate’ common EU frameworks in UK law, rather than devolve them. Although intended as transitory, don’t expect Holyrood and the Welsh Assembly to accept this without a fight.
Northern Ireland presents a host of new problems for the Government. Where devolution was mentioned, it expressed the government’s commitment to securing a resolution to the political paralysis in the Stormont following Arlene Foster’s energy scandal. Sincere this may be, but the Conservative’s efforts to gain DUP support in Westminster do nothing to settle Northern Ireland’s domestic politics. At present, if no agreement has been reached, it will revert to direct rule on the 29th June. This will of course do little to boost devolution advocates’ case.
Metro Mayors who had hoped for a seat around the negotiating table will be disappointed. Andy Burnham warned of a ‘London-centric’ Brexit, calling for a committee of the nations and the regions to meet before the next round of EU negotiations in July. Opinion, unsurprisingly, fell along party lines with Andy Street welcoming the industrial strategy and HS2 legislation and Sadiq Khan continuing to criticise cuts to education and the police.
Lord Kerslake’s contention prior to the Queen’s Speech that local government will need to ‘make its own entertainment’ for the next two years has pretty much been affirmed, and it’s clear the new Mayors will have to go their own way for the time being. The fulfilment of flagship manifesto pledges shows how devolved politics allows them to do this: concessionary bus travel in Great Manchester, the Mayor’s Mentor scheme in the West Midlands, and the launch of a Strategic Economic Review in Liverpool City Region today. If this is to be a lame duck government, the mayors might look quietly effective in comparison.