The road to devolution cannot be a straight path forged from the centre, writes LGiU chief executive Jonathan Carr-West.
Everyone’s talking about devolution these days. But while there’s growing consensus around the principle, there’s far less clarity about how it is to be achieved.
This is in part, because we’ve seen a rush to structural ‘solutions’ rather than real engagement with the reasons why we need a more local and plural political landscape in the UK.
The Cities and Local Devolution Bill in the Queen’s speech set out how new devolution settlements will give cities greater control over transport, housing, skills and healthcare in return for establishing elected mayors. The Chancellor has made it clear that he sees this as a key task for this Parliament and has argued that devolution offers the opportunity to “create a balanced, more healthy economy for working people across our United Kingdom”.
While this is welcome news for those of us who have long argued that effective growth and sustainable public service reform both require a relocalisation of British politics, it would be dangerous for any government to seek to impose a single democratic blueprint for devolution to England from Whitehall and Westminster without reflecting the views and aspirations of our diverse cities, counties and communities.
It’s clear though that devolution will operate within some formal parameters set by central government, specifically the creation of an elected mayor. For non-metropolitan areas the offer looks more limited with an extension of the Growth Deal programme from the last Parliament.
In, Devolution – A Road Map, we suggest that devolution to a model set out by the centre is not devolution at all.
We argue that the Mayoral model has strengths but its weakness is that it remains an important but narrow mechanism to achieve greater local accountability and governance. Merely electing a single political representative every five years will not necessarily bring power any closer to localities.
The starting point of our paper is that these moves towards devolution are a vital step not only towards stronger local economies, but towards better, more sustainable public services and towards greater democratic engagement across the UK.
However, our proposal is to invert the current relationship between central and local government by creating a locally-led process of devolution run on locally grown power. This would not involve local authorities being subject to onerous monitoring and assessment by the centre, nor would it replicate a bid system similar to that in place for the local growth fund whereby ministers set the criteria for success and hand down judgment from on high.
Substantive political devolution should occur where people locally demand it, and on the basis of powers which have been agreed locally.
We set out a practical way forward that allows devolution to happen at scale and at speed by avoiding a bureaucratic log jam in Whitehall and enabling the sort of plurality and ambition we need to make it work across the country.
If we want to make real progress in this parliament we need local authorities and groups of local authorities in the cities and the counties to come forward with detailed and realistic proposals on how they plan to grow their local economies and improve local services and what powers they need to achieve this.
We suggest five key tests that central government needs to apply to these proposals:
1) Benefit: can it be demonstrated that the Local Deal proposed will deliver real value for local people through economic growth and development, better or more sustainable public services, pooling of resources across services, improved infrastructure, or in some other way driven by local requirements?
2) Financial probity: can central government be confident that public money will be spent legally, honestly and transparently?
3) Financial management: how will councils ensure that return on spending is at least as effective as under the current system?
4) Ethical Standards: can it be demonstrated that the benefits of the local deal will be fairly distributed throughout the population?
5) Governance: are there adequate structures in place to make any new arrangements under the local deal properly accountable to local people? Accountability through the ballot box is an important part of this, but not all of it: Local deals must also demonstrate how they will inform local people of progress and get continual feedback from them.
Unless there is good reason to believe that these tests will not be met, the default position of the government should be to agree these proposals. Thus we shift from devolution as an exception granted by government to devolution as the normal state of affairs.
This is our devolution road map.
This article first appeared on the Huffington Post, 5 June 2015