If we are to conclude anything from the past ten years, it must be that a politics centralised in Westminster does not work for the nations, regions, cities, towns, and villages outside the M25. If places are ‘left behind’ they’ve been left behind by someone or something, and more often than not that something is a policy led by Westminster and Whitehall.
Britain’s inability to leave the EU on 29th March has been seen as both a purely political or purely constitutional failure. For advocates of devolution, it is both. A paralysed Westminster Parliament which has failed to offer meaningful power to its constituent regions is now faced with implementing an election result with which it appears to profoundly disagree.
On this analysis, George Osborne’s devolution deals were too little too late to solve the Brexit crisis but might well be early enough to show a way forward through the deep and embittered division thrown up by the referendum.
It is clear that the deals we have at the moment aren’t perfect, but the genie is out of the bottle, and the bottle is half full. Further devolution of powers, especially to other city regions, will become more and more difficult to deny after authorities see the success of places like Manchester, Liverpool, and the West Midlands.
“George Osborne’s devolution deals were too little too late to solve the Brexit crisis, but might well be early enough to show a way forward”
If South Yorkshire can make a success of its own deal – recently agreed in principle by Dan Jarvis and four local authority leaders – and if those areas south of the Tyne decide to join the new North of Tyne Mayor, then other areas will be pushing for their own control over at least the basics of adult skills, planning powers, and locally-controlled investment funds.
But to get to this point, we must see Brexit as an opportunity to speak directly to those ‘left behind areas’ that Theresa May tried to address with her disastrous 2017 General Election campaign. For this, current combined authorities, mayors, and local authority leaders need to build collaboration and consensus on the issues that matter most for the regions. Devolution is always a process and never a destination, and this applies as much to those at the city regional level as it does to Westminster.
To make effective change leaders should consider themselves as ambassadors for their areas, focusing on housing, homelessness and apprenticeships as soft leverage. Only once effective approaches have been tried, tested, and built will Westminster look to devolve further meaningful powers on infrastructure, transport, employment, and connectivity. For those who already have these powers, on a decentralised basis, working across various combined authorities to create a purposeful, singular voice for change will make a huge difference.
“If Brexit was a cry from the left-behinds then we must bring inclusive growth to those areas”
When Ken Livingstone’s powers were first unveiled in 2000, many were quick to point out that they were fairly limited. But who now would suggest that the role of London Mayor hasn’t been totally transformative, not just for London’s relationship with Westminster, but with the world?
In the North a truly transformative devolution also means embracing the opportunities offered by HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. We need to connect our great cities from coast to coast, making the North a hotspot for the growth not just of the traditional sectors but of green energy production, innovative tech companies, and hubs which specialise in the fourth industrial revolution in cyber-physical systems.
For this vision to become a reality, we must stop thinking in our geographic siloes and start thinking in terms of the next ten, twenty, and fifty years. If Brexit was a cry from the left-behinds then we must bring inclusive growth to those areas, driving an innovative economy back out into the city regions and towns of the North and regions.
If mayors and combined authorities can bring their voices together, then any future Government in Westminster won’t be able to ignore the demands. Devolution is here to stay, but we must grasp the opportunities it offers. The next year until May 2020, when the Mayoral elections will take place, will be a crucial proving ground for this desperately needed consensus-based politics.