Will devolution ever become the norm in England? With Metro Mayor Number 8 recently elected in the Sheffield City Region and the North of Tyne deal next up in 2019, it certainly looks like it’s here to stay.
The so called ‘devolution revolution,’ kick started by George Osborne, may have slowed to a ‘devolution evolution,’ under Phillip Hammond, but I am certain it will get stronger as English devolution spreads wider and deeper. Devolution is providing around 21 million people in England with a new way to engage with politics. In a post-Brexit Britain, it is no longer sustainable for power and control to be centred in Westminster and Whitehall. Just as Andy Burnham says, it has “failed too many parts of the country for far too long”. Growing dissatisfaction and the feeling by many that they have been ‘left behind’ is evident not just in the North but the Midlands and even relatively prosperous areas such as the East of England.
Devolution provides an opportunity to do politics differently and reconnect with the disconnected. One year on, there is far more cross-party collaboration and a new emphasis on building a collective voice on what’s needed in devolved areas. For example, the creation of the Greater Manchester, East of England and Northern Powerhouse All Party Parliamentary Groups provide for a new dynamic where Metro Mayors, MPs, civic and business leaders can come together, build consensus, bang the drum and lobby for change. This is potentially powerful stuff given the Government’s minority. Our Metro Mayors are keen to connect and show that they can be relevant to those who feel left behind.
Now is time to push forward and fight to ‘take back control’. Taking power away from Brussels and simply transferring it to Westminster and Whitehall doesn’t wash. Brexit will have a negative economic impact unless all parts of the United Kingdom are firing on all cylinders and benefitting from investment and growth. So, while there are undoubtedly different opinions on devolution within the Cabinet, the prevailing one is that the Government needs help to deliver inclusive growth and prosperity. They need to trust Metro Mayors to “get on with it”, let go of resources and devolve more powers. There is clear evidence to prove that, where competence is displayed, Government are willing to let go; the West Midlands and Liverpool had their second devo deals last Budget and Manchester had its sixth!
Local government really cannot go on as it is. It is not just the financial and austerity pressures – with some councils going bust – but also the complex web of overlapping governance arrangements that obscure the necessary clarity around leadership. We still await the English Devolution Framework to provide the next impetus to municipal entrepreneurship so that the confidence demonstrated by Greater Manchester, regarding great place making, is more widely spread.
So far, devolution might be better described as decentralisation. Metro Mayors need to make the case for more autonomy over decision making and revenue raising capabilities. We are nowhere close to US style federal devolution, but that doesn’t mean English devolution can’t be the solution to a strong UK economy outside Europe. Far from it. On issues like housing and homelessness, Metro Mayors are showing that their ‘convening powers’ are every bit as important as their statutory ones.
The devolution journey may have started with baby steps but the age-old adage about not running before you can walk certainly applies. One year on, we have seen some good progress and collaboration but there is certainly a long, long way to go to get everyone on board. England’s historical affection for pragmatic incrementalism – for reform, not revolution – means that further change will come but not necessarily at the same pace or in the same form. If we assume that Metro Mayors will continue to make a positive contribution and do things differently, then in time I believe that all political parties will make the case for more and better powers to be devolved away from Westminster. Good devolution makes sense if we are going to realise a stronger, balanced and more inclusive economy in a post-Brexit world.