What good devolution looks like


This article originally appeared in the Local Government Chronicle.

Levelling up, powering up, reducing regional disparity – whatever you want to call it, the question of how we build an economy that works for the whole country has troubled political parties and policy makers of all stripes for decades. Yet, despite the problem having relative consensus across Westminster and attempts to tackle it being central to more than one programme for government, no one yet has managed to make much of a dent in the huge gaps between the geographical haves and have nots of the UK. Even this week, research from the IFS identified that the UK “has gone into reverse” on many metrics since the release of the Levelling Up White Paper, calling on the next government to take decisive action to reverse “glacial” progress on the agenda.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have set out their stall for how English devolution and the evolution of combined authorities can address our regional gaps should they be handed the keys to number 10 on 5 July but, on reading their visions for the future of devolution, one can’t help but feel we’re in for more of the same.

“all that remains of the levelling up agenda is a skeleton”

In the case of the Tories this is almost literal: all that remains of the levelling up agenda is a skeleton of existing funding streams, existing commitments, and relatively small community initiatives. The Labour Party’s proposals, too, seem to have lost sight of the more positive aspects of Michael Gove’s 2022 Levelling Up White Paper, particularly the ambition to “rewire” how Whitehall relates to the regions.

Why is that important? Because it’s the very reason that, to date, all these initiatives to address regional disparity have failed so dismally.

Shaped by a strong directive from Whitehall to boost economic growth, combined authorities have been severely limited in the ways they can use their resources to build more inclusive economies. If the condition of devolution is to deliver narrow growth targets within a set time period, this makes it more challenging to diverge from the set definition of success by hardwiring inclusivity into economic development opportunities, resulting in a significant part of the local population being locked out of the proceeds of growth.

“pockets of excellence”

This is not to say they have not tried – pockets of excellence exist, including good, or fair, employment charters being used to elevate employment standards, social economy accelerators encouraging more ethical business ownership, proposals for a Good Landlord Charter in Greater Manchester and the Thrive into Work programme in the West Midlands. But if devolution comes with conditions from the centre – to hit growth targets that reign supreme – then it becomes extremely challenging for combined authorities to justify approaches that build economic inclusivity, despite the fact that they know full well that that is the only route to sharing wealth and prosperity more evenly across the country.

That’s why we at CLES are calling for the next government of the UK to have a fundamental rethink about how English devolution works and produce a framework that not only makes sense of how we are going to address the woes of regional inequality (and – crucially – why doing so is so important in human, as well as economic terms), but also makes sense to the electorate.

“measures that go beyond GVA”

First, we need a clear set of objectives for what devolution is seeking to achieve. Like it or loathe it, the concept of levelling up did cut through to people but, beyond certain circles, very few people understood how devolution was going to achieve this, if they even saw the connection at all. In this regard, a concept as nebulous to the general public as growth, simply won’t cut it: we need the success of devolution to be judged on measures that go beyond GVA and incorporate expectations to improve health outcomes, reduce poverty and inequality and tackle climate emergency.

Second, we need to think about how deals are made on devolution. While we acknowledge that, just as there is no such thing as a cookie cutter region (with differing political make ups, geographies, challenges and more), nor can there be a cookie cutter deal that applies to all places, it must be recognised that the behind-closed-doors, nod-and-a-wink approach devolution deal making is not an adequate alternative. For one thing, it’s led to a patchwork of differing powers across the country and contributed to the general air of befuddlement on who does what in local, sub regional and regional politics. Not just from the public, either – we at CLES have sat in plenty of meeting rooms with local and combined authority officers (not to mention their partners in the health, housing, education, charity and private sectors) who find themselves asking “whose job is that?”.

“brochures of dreams”

Third, the way we frame how devolution works in this country, and what it is for, needs to explicitly recognise the value and contribution of local authorities in developing local economies that improve lives. Councils are more than just the building blocks of combined authority areas, they have important and unique abilities to shape and drive the economic, environmental and social benefits most needed in their place. If Labour bring forward the local growth plans they want to place in the hands of combined authorities it will be vital that local authorities – alongside other key anchor institutions like the NHS, housing providers, education and more – are joint penholders, rather than distant consultees. Without the on the ground insight from people who know the challenges of their place best of all, these plans will be little more than brochures of dreams, with very little basis in reality or hope of delivery.

As this article is being written we are a little over two weeks away from what – regardless of how the cards fall on polling day – few can deny is a change election. But change can’t just be the dream of a select few in Westminster, it needs to be delivered at the local level. To do this, to finally deliver the much needed change in how prosperity is shared in this country, we need to rethink what good devolution looks like.

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