Uncertainty surrounded firm devolution plans for some areas before Brexit. But what about now? This timely post gives a useful update on what we can expect next on the big issue for our regions.
By PANEL WRITER Will Mapplebeck
Back in June, just before the Brexit vote, I wrote a blog post for comms2point0.co.uk called Eight Things You Always Wanted to Know About Devolution But Were Afraid to Ask. Given that quite a lot has happened since then, I thought it might be worth an update.
1. It’s not going anywhere
Despite some ‘wobbles’ at the start of Theresa May’s premiership when it appeared the policy of having directly elected mayors might be ditched, it appears that devolution is still a ‘big deal’ for Theresa May’s Government. The elected mayor elections are still on (see point 5) and the Government is still talking to and encouraging applications from groups of local authorities for devolved powers.
2. A new buzz phrase – inclusive growth
Back in June, I pointed to the fact that devolution had a strong economic case behind it, but that the social aspects were growing in importance. This is the idea that you can’t really create growth if you leave people behind as this actively damages the economy. This policy direction towards inclusive growth – making sure everyone shares in the proceeds – has continued, perhaps driven by Theresa May’s surprising play for the centre ground in her first speech as PM. The key message from Core Cities UK and others – see the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission interim report – is that inclusive growth can only happen at a local level, and will only happen when places are given more freedoms and powers.
3. Brexit changed everything… and nothing
The biggest decision in post war British politics was bound to cause a few high profile casualties, but so far the idea of more power to place has not been one. In fact, there’s wide acceptance that the reasons behind people voting to leave was partly due to a sense of alienation from mainstream politics and a feeling of helplessness in the face of global economic forces. People wanted to ‘take back control’ and devolving powers to local level gives them a chance to do that. There’s also a general cross-party understanding that, whatever the outcome of Brexit, our cities and other places remain relatively underpowered compared to their European Counterparts and our country is one of the most over centralised in the World.
4. Move over Northern Powerhouse, there’s a new slogan in town
While at Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, I couldn’t help noticing that Midlands Engine was everywhere – the subject of numerous fringe programmes and receptions. Last year, in Manchester it was another slogan that sounds like a bad gay nightclub, Northern Powerhouse. Make no mistake, the powerhouse isn’t dead, despite being tied strongly to former Chancellor George Osbourne, but the Midlands Engine is the slogan of choice in various parts of Government at the moment.
5. The Metro mayors are coming
Metro mayor candidates are now lining up for battle in May, don’t under-estimate how visible they will become when they are elected in Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Tees Valley and the West Midlands (South Yorkshire’s mayor is still the subject of debate at time of writing). Metro Mayors will make sure they become the go-to for media comment and they’ll be full of ideas to raise their public profile, proving they are actually doing something. Expect new mayors to zero in on issues like transport and housing, everyday things that make a difference to voters. Interestingly, there are no high profile independent candidates, the idea of a ‘celebrity’ mayor like Terry Christian or Alan Shearer doesn’t seem to have materialised.
6. Cities still at the heart, but other places need some love as well
One big criticism of the devolution agenda that it was all about cities, big cities. I work for Core Cities UK, so I’m a little bit biased on this point. For us, the economic evidence is clear – they are the country’s economic driver and given more freedoms – like their European counterparts – and they will do far more for UK Plc. But Theresa May has signalled that other, smaller, places are important too.
7. Not everywhere got a deal… or a mayor
George Osborne would have liked mayors to cover all the big cities, but political infighting and suspicion of the Government’s agenda put paid to that. Some big areas, notably the North East and West Yorkshire, ended up with nothing at all although talks still continue. Devolution is about more than just mayors, but the Government has stayed true to the original idea that if you want the best deal, you need to accept the idea of a mayor.
8. Remember, it’s still all about the people
I’m going to say it again, at the end of the day all this policy theorising and political manoeuvring comes down to people. People’s services, homes, jobs and lives. If you want to communicate it well, think about the difference it will make and what will actually change in terms of everyday life.
image by Will