DevoConnect Summer Soirée: Where next for English devolution?

DevoConnect held its annual summer debate on Tuesday evening at Portcullis House, seeing a lively discussion about the future of devolution, chaired by Gill Morris, Chief Executive of DevoConnect. Gill pointed out to the committed ‘devolutionistas’ in the room that 21 million Britons now live in areas with a Metro Mayor – easily outnumbering the 17 million who voted for Brexit. Devolution can – and perhaps must – help people to ‘take back control’ post-Brexit.

Jim McMahon pointed out that there is just one Northern MP in the Cabinet and evidence that the North is a victim of a disinterested government with a regional ‘democratic deficit’. Cuts to public services have made people’s lives incredibly difficult; allowing regions to spend their own money could reverse this damage. He said there is too much pressure placed on council tax and business tax at present, so local and regional governments must demand more financial support from Westminster. Labour would conduct a proper review of councils’ funding and create extended ‘neighbourhood plans’ to solve this. Jim McMahon ended by saying s there should be a new era of localism and a new devolution settlement for England.

James Palmer, Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, also characterised the East of England as largely ignored by national government despite creating significant UK wealth – and in a barbed comment said that Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s £5bn contribution to the Treasury was in marked contrast to Greater Manchester which takes £5bn from the Exchequer. He pointed out that despite its prosperity, public services are incredibly poor and infrastructure investment below the national average. However he said he did not need to go to Whitehall with a ‘begging bowl’ but he did need powers so that he can raise finance from the thriving private sector. This would give him ‘the freedom to deliver’. Devolution changes the narrative – it is a new idea whose time has come.

Edna Robinson, Chair of the People’s Powerhouse, argued that the current Northern Powerhouse and devolution agenda is too narrow, failing to engage people in ‘left-behind’ communities who feel disenfranchised and lack trust in politics. In politics, people are often seen as ‘part of the problem,’ but decision-makers should appreciate the value of listening to their voices. What is important is a deliberative, people focussed debate about the future not a polarised, political debate. Unpicking our current unequal political system through better devolution could prevent swings to the far left or right.

Ed Cox, Director of Public Services and Communities at the RSA, argued that Westminster should no longer be trusted with devolution, as politicians have made devolved areas fight each other for funding and attention. He said existing Metro Mayors are doing a good job with very limited powers – decentralisation not real devolution – called for the publication of the long awaited Devolution Framework and made a plea for a genuine discussion about Inclusive Growth not ‘bullshit’. He criticised both Labour and the Conservative Party for not fleshing out their future devolution policies and was particularly critical of the narrow, corporate agenda being pursued in the name of the Northern Powerhouse. He ended by saying that England’s 80 year old experiment with centralism must end.

So, where next for English devolution? Most of the panellists agreed that some form of fiscal devolution was the next step. Suggestions from Ed Cox included using the Barnett formula to allocate regional funding and allowing regions to spend the first 10p of income tax. On structures, there was a call for a deliberative movement for devolution which might consider a mature federal England with four big tiers within which city regions and counties had more power. On policy James Palmer suggested that the government would be ‘bold’ to devolve education policy, but said that it would benefit regions immensely. Gill concluded by welcoming the fact that the debate has now begun: future devolution policy should reflect England’s great regional diversity and build on its strengths.

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