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Only devolution can protect public services from years of Brexit disruption
The new Prime Minister made his first policy speech in Manchester on the 27th July and the major theme was supporting the further devolution of powers to cities and local areas.
This article by MV’s Andrew Laird was published online in the MJ on the 15th July.
While Ministers and Parliament focus on Brexit, local services (e.g. adult social care, children’s services and the NHS), are looking increasingly like unintended victims. These services need constant care and attention through legislative updates and serious policy research and discussion at a national level. But they aren’t getting any of this.
In our everyday work supporting local public services, we have observed plenty of examples of central government actions and decisions being delayed. This is largely due to minsters and MPs focusing on Brexit and thousands of civil servants being taken away from their normal jobs of supporting public services to work on Brexit planning. I know for a fact that civil servants in Whitehall are as frustrated by this as local front line staff. During the Brexit referendum no one was talking about the inevitable negative impact the long Brexit process would have on all the good things government usually spends it time doing – things which are essential to smooth running of public services.
As an example, one of the biggest challenges facing the Government is the funding crisis in adult social care. The Green Paper on social care needs to set out a serious long term financial answer – but it has been continually delayed. There are three Brexit related issues causing this delay. The first is creating the time for ministers and Cabinet to agree to the plan – there isn’t much non-Brexit headspace at the top of government right now. This extends way back before the current Conservative Party leadership election which has itself has caused additional ministerial stasis. The second is that the planned cross government Spending Review will now almost certainly be delayed. It’s hard to set out a long term solution to social care without knowing the funding envelope. The third is that this Green Paper needs to set out tough decisions which will undoubtedly require media space to explain it to the public. Again there isn’t much non-Brexit time at the minute. So adult social care services are left to struggle on without any long term funding certainty. This is already having a much wider impact across public services. Without setting out a long term funding solution for social care, any NHS reforms will struggle to take hold.
As luck would have it one of the policy victims of central governments distraction by Brexit has been the very thing that might have protected local services. Devolution. There are plenty of influential people calling for increased devolution. We already have the beginnings of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ based around the 11 northern local enterprise partnerships. Now a report commissioned by Bristol, Cardiff and Newport City Councils, A Powerhouse for the West, is calling for a similar arrangement along the M4 corridor, from Swindon across to Cardiff and Swansea, and from Gloucester and Cheltenham to Bath and Bristol. Grand partnership strategies like this combined with more localised devolution to cities, councils and combined authorities are what is needed.
The drive for devolution has been knocked down the priority list. This was once a really positive agenda item for central government. Giving local areas additional powers was a big step towards insulating local services from central government distraction and change.
We are facing years of central government Brexit distraction and the new Prime Minister should recognise this reality and move quickly to encourage and support a new wave of devolution deals.