Sunday, 6 March 2016

Devolution, Evolution & sitting on a barb-wire fence

It’s been a while since I blogged about devolution and the futures of local government.  A great deal has changed since I began posting, initially focussing on the possibilities raised by “DevoManc” & the (then Coalition) Government’s new found appetite for subsidiarity.

It’s worth reflecting on how different the landscape looks now, compared to only 18 months ago.  The Greater Manchester deal is, of course, the tower that dominates the skyline.  But alongside GManc we have devolution deals for Cornwall, West Yorks, West Mids, Tees Valley & more.  Local government, in the doldrums for so long, has (to some extent, at least) been reinvigorated intellectually if not financially by the challenges & opportunities at stake.  Economic growth, seemingly the Government’s prime consideration in all of its dealings, is crucial to localised approaches but in tandem with welcome emphases on health & wellbeing, skills & infrastructure, & the challenges of the future.  Chasing small pots of money to fund sticking plasters for problems is yesterday’s game: everyone seems to be talking root causes, complex interdependencies & long-term solutions now.  Public services have some of their boldness back, driven in part by the reality that the traditional approaches of the last twenty (or more?) years are gone.

& yet the last couple of weeks or so have seen a significant shift in mood.  Cracks have started to show in several areas looking to agree devo deals & Combined Authority agreements.  The “North Midlands” (an aside: I truly dislike that label) proposal covering Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire has seen almost daily renditions of in, out & shake it all about.  Districts in Oxfordshire have apparently gone rogue with a plan for new unitaries. The Norfolk & Suffolk plan is now spreading into other parts of East Anglia.  Or is it? & so the questioning starts: is it worth it? Might it be better for us to wait & see what happens? See who fails? Should we sit on the fence?

The vagaries inherent in a deal-based, rather than a methodology-based, approach from central Government were always going to result in an imbalanced & unequal patchwork of arrangements around the country.  The GManc deal, although held up as a trailblazer & model to follow, is the result of a unique situation.  It would be folly for rural areas or combined shires to simply copy the “Northern Powerhouse” (another pet hate); but then it is equally unhelpful to have the Mayoral model imposed from Whitehall as a pre-requisite for substantial decentralisation.  Calls are getting louder for more clarity from central Government about what exactly is on offer, & what is the quid pro quo?

Personally, I’m all in favour of asymmetry: local deals need to suit local circumstances & ambitions.  That may well mean large areas of the country don’t get a deal for some time, & it may mean that some arrangements are significantly diluted in comparison to others.  The deals already done are surely only first stages: proof of concept (& accountability) will lead to more responsibilities.

So the emphasis should be on local leadership (across organisational boundaries) working with their communities to pinpoint what is needed, & making a convincing case for it.  A compelling vision for the future has to be the key, not a compelling structure chart. If that means tearing up the blueprints & starting again, so be it; but that can only happen if there is an appetite in Whitehall for genuine & variable change.  The proof of concept needs to work both ways.

& above all let’s not forget that devolution will be a process of evolution. A new era for local democracy & accountability is not going to happen immediately or neatly. Steps forward will, as ever, be followed by steps back.  But democracy, accountability, politics, geography; these are all messy, complex, disputable notions without obvious solutions. & surely it’s better to be wading through the mud than sitting on a barb-wire fence.