We need devolution deals – and we need them now
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
Writing for HuffPost, MV’s Andrew Laird makes the case for more devolution against the backdrop of central government uncertainty…
“Getting on with the job” is going to be challenging for the Ministers who make up this government. Firstly, the Brexit negotiations will overshadow domestic policy and public service reform. Secondly, in a hung parliament (our second in three elections) even the most uncontroversial legislation will require careful and time consuming lobbying and management. And finally, there will be unavoidable uncertainty around the future of the Conservative Party on which each Minister and MP will want to have their say. All of this will make progressing quickly on the public service reform (e.g. health and social care integration and driving improvement and innovation in children’s services) difficult.
Even at the best of times when a party gets a majority and is relatively stable, like in 2015, there is always a period of purdah in the run up to the election during which central government pretty much shuts down. Then after the election there is often a spending review which takes a minimum of six months while ministers and civil servants negotiate new budgets with the Treasury. During this period any public service reform can be forgotten about – government as a driver of reform is effectively paralysed.
So in order to avoid this increasingly regular paralysis, I would argue that we need to be devolving as much power and responsibility as possible to local areas. Ministers should prioritise pushing on with the manifesto pledge to develop existing local devolution deals and agree new ones. I’ll admit I am a fan of devolution having previously written about Metro Mayors driving public service reform and the potential of Andy Street (the former John Lewis boss) in the West Midlands.
A proper system of devolved power is how some of our main rivals/partners handle the hiatus created by the electoral cycle. In German federal elections, the main parties rarely emerge with a working majority and there usually follows a lengthy period of coalition negotiations. However, Germany has a sophisticated system of devolved regional government in which 16 States are granted significant powers. This allows for a more fluid continuation of public business than we have in the UK. I’m in no way suggesting we mirror this approach (John Prescott’s vision for Regional Assemblies was rejected by the public years ago) – but we can surely learn something from it.
In addition to promising more action on devolution, the Government’s manifesto promises to “continue to give local government greater control over the money they raise”. It also promises a review of the business rates system. An ambition to move towards these being set and retained by devolved administrations would be an important empowering step and would create some healthy competition between areas trying to attract new businesses/employers.
Another key theme is “holding NHS leaders to account”. The current system makes this difficult as, unlike councils, the NHS does not have a legal requirement to balance its books. More place based budgets, like the £6bn that has been devolved to Greater Manchester, are a step in the right direction and will create more local accountability. Focusing a fixed budget on a particular place (as well as merging this with council controlled social care budgets) starts us on an inevitable path towards balanced budgets. With talented people like Andy Street (the West Midlands Mayor and former John Lewis boss) currently in post, the government should press on with more similar deals.
Philip Hammond and Sajid Javid, the Chancellor and Communities Secretary, both understand business and deal making and are more than qualified to negotiate devolution deals with local areas.
The manifesto talks about the good government can do. Right now this should involve devolving powers to the relative stability of local government, mayors and combined authorities. This has been the ambition of successive governments – but with Westminster facing its own set of challenges, it is more urgent than ever.