Steve Barwick: what will happen to devolution in 2020?


Category: devoComment

DevoConnect have long been advocates of Devo 3.0 – the need for a new wave of devolution following the regional approach of the noughties and the only partially completed programme of Metro Mayor deals started in the middle of this decade. No one has 2020 vision but it’s possible that we’re standing on the cusp of a new decade which will see a renewed commitment to, dare we say it, “get devolution done”.

Last week’s Queen’s Speech flagged up the new Government’s determination to publish a Devolution White Paper setting out their strategy “to unleash the potential of our regions, which will include plans for… levelling up powers and investment in the regions across England and allowing each part of the country to decide its own destiny.”

These are bold claims but already senior northern Conservative MPs such as Kevin Hollinrake are tweeting their delight that “the Gov’t is poised to support @NPAPPG pleas for 30-year, £70bn investment in Northern infrastructure.” Using the hashtag #UniteAndLevelUp signifies there is genuine confidence that there has been a major change of heart.

Of course, this commitment is massively boosted by the Conservative’s General Election success in Labour’s heartlands in the north and midlands. Delivery of visible improvement in a string of post-industrial towns is now essential. But it helps that Boris Johnson was Mayor of London for two terms as well. The economic rationale for devolution is clear too and was laid out plainly in the Notes to the Queen’s Speech: “All of the largest non-capital cities in the UK, with the exception of Bristol, are less productive than would be expected for their size and huge potential.”

What of the detail though? Of course, that is all to come but there will clearly be more Mayors and a renewed emphasis on the Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine, and Western Gateway strategies. There is a suggestion that deals will be done across the whole of England so the 63% of the population currently without a devolution deal benefit too. That will be a challenge in more rural areas if an elected Mayor remains a ‘must have’ in order to make progress.

There are other key questions. Will all Whitehall Departments commit to the process so we see. for example, adult skills funding and powers properly devolved and soon? What about the perennial question of fiscal devolution, something that was a key concern of the former Mayor of London? At a more strategic level, will Conservative MPs – and the PM – be happy to see new funding and powers being delegated to predominantly and increasingly powerful Labour Metro Mayors or will they seek to bypass these and go direct to the respective towns or via LEPs?

Of course, the biggest question right now is when will we see the White Paper? After all, May’s Devolution Framework was promised by a succession of Secretaries of State over a number of years. The hope is that although Brexit will not really be ‘done’ by January 31st at least there will be time for other Government commitments to be seen through. Happy Devo2020!

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