Whither devolution in the post-Cameron and Osborne political age?

Devolution has been a key feature of the government’s agenda to promote growth and to develop strategy and infrastructure on a regional footprint.

Devolution has been a key feature of the government’s agenda to promote growth and provide some coherence to the development of economic strategy and infrastructure on a regional footprint. But as we press on towards elected mayors for regional combined authorities in May 2017 there have been some doubts expressed about the future of devolution.  The devolution pathway, as with so many other things, was thrown into some doubt by the outcome of the EU referendum.  

As a result of the political shift caused by the outcome of the referendum George Osbourne and Greg Clark, the prime architects of the devolution agenda, have moved on. Greg Clark reiterated the government’s commitment to devolution at the LGA Conference in one of his last acts as Communities secretary. Mr Clark’s replacement, Sajid Javid, has indicated that devolution will remain a priority.

The local government sector has argued with force and merit that the EU referendum result should act a stimulus towards greater devolution rather than a brake upon it. The vote has been seen as a call for a move away from remote government and for more understanding by politicians of local needs and circumstances.  The view that local solutions are needed is reinforced by the regional variations in voting which marked the referendum. 

This suggests that there may need to be adapt the approach to devolution adopted by government, in particular the insistence on the adoption of an elected mayor as a pre-requisite for devolution of powers. The elected mayor role seems to be capturing the imagination in cities with the role attracting a number of MPs and high profile individuals to suggest that they will throw their hat into the ring for the roles in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

However, the elected mayoral model has not translated so easily into rural areas. There have been difficulties in reaching agreement on devolution deals in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, Cheshire, East Anglia and Hampshire amongst other places. The requirement to commit to an elected mayoral has been a major obstacle in these areas. It seems that Leicestershire has proposed a devolution deal without an elected mayor which it is suggested is being to be being looked upon favourably by the government. If the door is now open to a different governance model it could lead to a renewed impetus for county devolution deals.

The devolution agenda has moved quickly since the last general election and work is now advanced on the governance arrangements which will underpin the combined authorities with devolved powers from next year. The government has signalled an appetite to unleash the potential in the new arrangements with the announcement at the budget of an additional £246.5 million a year funding for combined authorities which will not be ring fenced and the piloting of full business rate retention in Greater Manchester and Liverpool and possibly other devolved areas. 

The latest deals have seen increased powers relating to skills being devolved. The successful use of these new powers will be the key to unlocking the potential for growth in the devolved areas. This is crucial as ambitious objectives for the creation of new jobs have been set. 

It is now even more crucial post-Brexit that devolution delivers the growth across the country required to boost the economy. This needs to be delivered at the same time as the transformation of public service to meet the needs of current and future populations. This will require strong leadership, locally and nationally and a focus on long term planning. This will not be easy but devolving decisions to a level where the understanding of the needs and strengths of local populations is greater has to be a big step in the right direction.

The piecemeal approach to devolution has been criticised. However, the localised nature of the deals means that they are able to truly reflect local circumstances. It also means that those areas that wish to press ahead with devolution are not held up by a need to develop a consensus to the approach to be adopted across the whole country.   

If devolution is to succeed the newly elected mayors need to be given the freedom to work with their combined authorities, local councils, residents and businesses to implement the deals and to be bold. The government has signalled its commitment to devolution it now needs to prove that by supporting the new arrangements and by not intervening at the first sign of any difficulty. In turn, local government needs to embrace the new arrangements and do what it does best - deliver. 

A version of this article appeared in the MJ.

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