Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Strangely strange, but oddly normal

"Oh I could wreck my brain
Trying to explain
Where it is I think that we are heading"

from "Strangely strange but oddly normal" by Doctor Strangely Strange

Another election, another set of shocks to add to the catalogue of twenty first century politics in Britain. Nearly a week on from polling day & as the dust begins to settle, the possible outcomes arising from the Conservatives latest gamble with the electorate are beginning to emerge. What exactly the presumed Tory/DUP pact will mean for the economy, devolution, security & above all the Brexit negotiation strategy (there is one, right?) is open for debate - & the debates are coming thick & fast.

There has been no lack of prediction, forecasting & claims of prescience - &, as usual, most of it has turned out to be been inaccurate.  But what has been noticeable in its absence throughout the election campaign is an application of foresight or futures thinking - an exploration of scenarios, hypothetical alternatives, wild card situations.  & let's face it, in the period following the 2015 election there have been quite a few wild cards.  Nevertheless, despite some honourable exceptions, few commentators seem willing or able to move beyond applying patterns from the past to the future - fighting the last election, if not the last war.  In the febrile, kaleidoscopic, inconstant politics of this age, it seems there are no fixed points: multiple futures can emerge.

Amongst this flux, the pragmatic politics & delivery of local government continue to stand out.  Throughout the years of austerity, councils have prided themselves on "getting on with the job", even if some have been perilously close to the financial wire on several occasions. If we really are seeing the dawn of the end of austerity, however dim it may be, then local government can  further reinforce its place with cross-party, open & collegiate leadership for local places.  As the early days of the new Metro Mayors have illustrated, visionary & inclusive urban government can transcend the chaos at national level.  Nothing new there, then.

So yes, these are strangely strange days.  But they're also oddly normal.
Here's to the next election.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

At least two cheers for the Elected Mayors

So at last we finally have our six "metro mayors", elected on Thursday & starting their first week in office.  In some ways it seems an age since the first signs of devolution mania gripped the world of wonks (the 1st blog I wrote was in November 2014 in the heady days of "DevoManc").  Since then the fashion for devo has ebbed & flowed, particularly since the EU Referendum result appeared to change everything. However, despite the political shocks of 2016 devo retains its devotees in policy circles, if not the wider populace - although it should be said that the turnout in most of the mayoral elections exceeded (admittedly low) expectations.

& now, as the cliché goes, the hard work begins.  The mayors are now in a crucial phase that could define their periods of office & the future for further devolution.  Establishing a strong vision, clear targets & early results for their mayoralty must be the priority for all of the victors.  But beyond each of the localities, the impact of mayors could be a catalyst for further & greater decentralisation.

As has been noted elsewhere, the success of Conservative candidates has the potential to revive the fervour within central Government lacking since the departure of Osborne & the distancing of Greg Clark. This assumes (& why wouldn't it?) the General Election returns an emboldened Theresa May to Number 10. In particular, Andy Street's success in the West Midlands establishes a Tory figurehead in the most politically & geographically complex Combined Authority, & provides the possibility for a significant alignment of the post-Brexit industrial strategy with a vibrant city region as its testbed. The stakes are high, the challenges are daunting - but the prize of a genuine alternative to centralised power could be at stake.

Alongside reigniting the interest of Whitehall, successful mayoralties can also re-embolden devolutionaries across the country. Beyond the six metro-mayor regions and devo-deal areas such as Cornwall, many potential agreements have fallen apart or been snuffed out. Its difficult to imagine this remaining the case if & when the mayoral effect begins to occur. Adapting & seizing the future prospects for local, place-specific approaches will surely be back on the cards for a variety of areas - be they cities, regions, counties or clusters.  Much of the fall out (& fallings out) following the 2015 deadline for proposals centred on clashes over sovereignty, structure & territory; issues that doubtless remain but may be vanquished by examples of mayoral success. Unity of purpose, rather than unity of governance, could once more be the focus.

I remain a devotee.  As it happens on Thursday & Friday last week (election day & results day) I was honoured to attend a UK City Futures symposium, hearing speakers from across academia, think tanks, local government & beyond discuss the futures of devolution, industrial strategies & localist approaches. Examples such as Newcastle City Futures highlight the potential for local areas to develop collaborative innovation & practical solutions. Many forward thinking cities are engaged in comparable work - the question is how devolution can catalyse similar approaches in other towns, regions & places that in part make up the "forgotten" (or stifled/stuck) parts of the country?  Local futures work, with genuine & comprehensive engagement with place-based scenarios, is essential for this to succeed.  & in time, we can look forward to many more mayors, devolution deals & genuine decentralisation to come.