Laying the foundations for more and better devolution.
The Devolution White Paper must deliver wider, deeper and better devolution and end “the devolution deception”, conclude the authors of a new report for the UK2070 Commission, Steve Barwick and Jack Hutchison
Boris Johnson has promised to unleash a new chapter of devolution in England with’ devo deals’ expected in the Budget and a Devolution White Paper before summer recess. The promise is that these announcements will go further than the City Region Metro Mayor initiatives begun by George Osborne in 2014. There is an expectation that the next wave – Devo 3.0 – should be more extensive than 2.0 and embed itself in the political DNA of England in a way that John Prescott’s regional vision (Devo 1.0) never did.
But what does better devolution look like? DevoConnect conducted a wide ranging survey of 79 decision makers and influencers from across the political spectrum including current Metro Mayors, local authority leaders, think tanks and business leaders. Our report, the Devo 3.0 Review, published last week by the UK2070 Commission, sets out key benchmarks by which the new Government’s approach to devolution should be tested and held to account.
First, it is critical that the Government should be clear about the purposes of devolution. In our review these were: supporting a new Treasury objective of rebalancing the economy geographically; creating more democratic governance; and the better delivery of public services. In fact, the Government should commit to a national dialogue on the benefits of and need for devolution. Acknowledging that we are one of the most unequal countries in the OECD – 28th out of 30 – would be a good starting point. So would a clear statement that taking back control from Brussels post-Brexit will not stop in Westminster and Whitehall.
Second, the Government needs to have a coherent and systematic approach to devolution. It should set out a clear devolution framework, or continuum, showing the range of current Government powers and funding suitable for devolving and which will be devolved over the medium term as capacity and competence, as well as leadership and demand, becomes available at the devolved level. Currently what Metro Mayors have is more akin to delegation or co-partnership arrangements with Government but what is needed is genuine devolution – the powers and funding to make real decisions, deliver real services and to be held to account.
Third, there is a need for an interim settlement with existing elected Metro Mayors. This should be focused on the devolution of all adult skills funding and powers; the devolution of transport and other infrastructure spending up to £500million as recommended by the National Infrastructure Commission; and some elements of fiscal devolution. One of the more marked comments made was that there is currently a devolution deception – the mismatch whereby a Mayor is held accountable for an issue but does not have the powers or funding to properly address it.
Fourth, the Government’s goal should be to agree devolution deals across the whole of England in the next five years. To do this the Government should publicly acknowledge that devolution is a process as well as a principle: something that can, and will, only be delivered in partnership with existing local government as well as business and other stakeholders. The next wave of devolution must not be ‘half hearted’ nor ‘one size fits all’. Devo 3.0 needs to signify the end of imposed blueprints and shift the emphasis towards local and sub-regional partners taking the lead in agreeing deals. Respondents to our survey agreed by a small majority that the Metro Mayoral model should not be the only way forward.
Fifth, a Secretary of State should be appointed to lead the implementation of devolution. All Government Departments – including the Treasury and relevant quangos – need to be genuinely committed to the principle, and support the process, of devolution and rebalancing the economy. Ultimately what is needed is triple devolution: to local government; to the sub-regional (Mayoral) level; and to the sub-national level, i.e. the North, the Midlands, London and the wider South East. To make that happen devolution must become a top-five priority for the Government.
We shall see how the new Government measures up and report back in future editions of DevoIntelligence!