Gill Morris: Radical action not warm words, please!

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Category: General news

The Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper will be seeing the light of day in Autumn 2020. Here are six key tests DevoConnect Chief Executive Gill Morris says we should all use to judge it when it is finally published!

1. Will it be crystal clear on the purpose of devolution?

Boris Johnson has a knack of saying what people want to hear and ‘turning a phrase’ but arguably he is less good at delivering the goods. Yes, he got Brexit done – but, then again, has he really? I see no trade deal on the horizon just yet. When it comes to devolution there is a massive degree of expectation fuelled in no small part by the Prime Minister’s own rhetoric of levelling up. But the first test is whether there is any explicit recognition in the White Paper regarding what devolution is actually for. It is not just a cuddly, voter friendly, soundbite. It must have a hard edge and mean something. The Devo 3.0 Review, which DevoConnect were proud to be asked to do by the UK 2070 Commission, and which included a survey of the views of forty two of the country’s top devolution decision makers and influencers, concluded the purposes are three fold: improved economic performance, supporting a new Treasury objective of rebalancing the economy geographically; creating more democratic governance; and the better delivery of public services.

2. What does it say regarding existing city region Mayors?

There are nine Metro Mayors and at least one more – for West Yorkshire is to be elected in May 2021. These ten, which includes the Mayor of London, will be elected by 21 million people – 37% of England’s population. Each Mayor has some powers and resources but frequently complain that they are engaged in decentralisation or co-decision making rather than genuine devolution: moreover, they are constantly in fear of being held responsible for something for which they do not actually have the cash or policy levers to actually deliver. Covid-19 and the recession it has precipitated, has catapulted this debate centre stage. Calls for more powers and for fiscal devolution have been loud and clear and not just from Labour Mayors – Andy Street has also been vocal arguing for more influence over how taxpayers’ cash is spent locally, as well as control over transport, housing and large infrastructure projects. Will the White Paper deliver a significant, substantial transfer of powers and resources so that existing Metro Mayors can truly lead the recovery in their own city regions?

3. Will it make completing the devolution jigsaw subject to “unitarization”?

Local Growth Minister Simon Clarke announced – at a major DevoConnect Webinar – that further devolution deals in two tier local authority areas would be subject to unitarization and could take ten years. Or did he?! The Government release was withdrawn as soon as it was published, and the Government has since gone ‘mum’. Is this another U turn in the making? Let’s hope so because we should not forget that U turns are not always bad things: sometimes they are taken because Ministers listen and reconsider. Perhaps Simon was flying a kite to see what the reaction was. If so, he should have heard loud and clear that unitarization should be dropped. It will delay the roll-out of devolution whilst County Councils and District Councils, both mostly conservative, slug it out locally and then nationally when the legislation needs to be passed. To drop this condition would be the right thing to do. The Devo 3.0 review recommended no preconditions and competing the England devo-jigsaw in the lifetime of this Parliament ie by 2024 not 2030. In fact, I recall Lord Heseltine, when asked when this should and could be done, said “tomorrow”!

4. What will it say about Local Government powers and resources?

Devolution is not just about Metro Mayors and Combined Authorities. Local government is at the heart of good governance and the building block for genuine devolution. The sad fact is that the oft-heard lament regarding local authority cuts has gone on too long and the anguished cry that “we cannot go on like this” should be answered in the White Paper. The Covid 19 pandemic has certainly highlighted the limitations of the centralised command and control approach – think track and trace – and the fact that local government plays an essential role in so many ways both in delivering resilience and economic recovery. There is an understandable fear that talk of devolution could obscure the need for action to put local government finances on a stable, sustainable and long-term footing. Also, that the White Paper may fail to recognise that local and national government must be in a genuine partnership if we are to defeat a second wave of coronavirus. Ultimately what should be in the White paper is triple devolution: to local government; to the sub-regional (Metro Mayoral) level; and to the sub-national level, i.e. the North, the Midlands, London and the wider South East

5. Will it open the door to joining up Mayoral Combined Authorities with health agenda?

The virtue of devolution is that place not party is to the fore and there is greater capacity to “join up” issues: employment with transport, housing with skills, etc. The Government is on the brink of reform of social care and a White Paper on that is also long overdue. Will the Government take this opportunity to join up the two white Papers and include a reference to health devolution which is already underway in many different ways across England? The future of Integrated care Services, and their read across to local democratic leadership, has been thrust centre stage by the Health Devolution Commission whose report, co-authored again by DevoConnect reported in August. It made one overarching recommendation: the roll out across England comprehensive health devolution which incorporates national entitlements but embeds the delivery of a single NHS, social care and public health service within broader, powerful, democratically led local partnerships. Let’s hope the devolution White Paper leaves the door open to health devolution reform too.

6. Overall, does it suggest a new direction of travel?

A majority of Devo 3.0 Review respondents said better devolution was a principle and a process not a ‘one size fits all’ blueprint nor a ‘half hearted’ approach. A genuine commitment to devolution would be signified if there was a shift in emphasis towards local and sub-regional partners taking the lead in agreeing deals. the Metro Mayoral model should not be the only model permitted. A Secretary of State should be appointed to oversee the implementation of devolution and all Government Departments – including HMT and relevant quangos – need to be genuinely committed to the principle, and support the process, of devolution and rebalancing the economy. Worryingly there are signs that far from being the devolutionist that those who remember Boris Johnson from City Hall recall and hope for, there are strong centralising tendencies within Number Ten. Sadiq Khan has reported less not more powers since the general election last year. The White Paper must make clear that the forces of centralisation have been overcome and that there will be radical action and soon, not just warm words.

Gill Morris – CEO DevoConnect.

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