City devolution skeptics can, like Paddy Ashdown, start eating their hats - RSA

Blog: City devolution skeptics can, like Paddy Ashdown, start eating their hats

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  • Picture of Charlotte Alldritt
    Charlotte Alldritt
    Director of Public Services and Communities, RSA
  • Cities

Many a devolution skeptic had wondered whether the Conservative party’s enthusiasm for the Northern Powerhouse – led by the Chancellor, George Osborne – was pre-election pandering to the Labour heartlands. And so it might have been. But David Cameron made sure to renew his commitment to city devolution in his speech last Friday as he accepted the Queen’s invitation to form a government for a second term – this time with a majority.

Several devolution skeptics also wondered whether the PM’s promise to rebalance the political and economic geography of the country was merely timely rhetoric – a faint response to the SNP’s domination north of the border.

But in less than a week we have seen the Chancellor announce a Cities Devolution Bill will be drafted for the first session of the new Parliament; Greg Clark – a thoughtful champion of localism with credibility amongst local government leaders of all parties – appointed Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government; and, Jim O’Neill, chair of the RSA City Growth Commission, appointed as Commercial Secretary to the Treasury with particular responsibility for cities and infrastructure investment. The skeptics can, like Paddy Ashdown, start eating their hats.

But there’s more to be done. This morning I spoke at the Core Cities Devolution Declaration event and warned against ‘superficial devolution’ – the type that looks like Father Christmas has handed out gifts from under the tree, but where the conditions, caveats and small print are such that the benefits can’t be realised. The issue of elected mayors, for example, might prove a sticking point for many places. And will the Chancellor enable real fiscal devolution? Abolishing the cap on council tax in England and allowing Greater London to retain a greater share of the income it generates will be key tests of the new Government.

The Coalition made significant, and sometimes unexpected, levels of progress - particularly with the devolution of health and social care budgets to Greater Manchester. The agenda continues to march on at a pace. Let’s hope with it comes real devolution – a chance to rebalance our economy, reform our public services and renew our democracy.

This is not just about the Northern Powerhouse (though it now has its own minister in James Wharton). In all of our great city-regions and beyond, we have an opportunity to let people and places shape their own futures.


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  • What we need is for the RSA to urge sensible devolution to the variety of cities across the country and not simply to the larger ones or the core cities or the metropolitan regions.  The Key Cities Group, of the next 25 or so cities in England, has published some useful work on the merits of the medium sized cities and their contribution to and capacity to add to the local, regional and national economy.  We need to play to the strengths across the country and to avoid arbitrary, and daft, conditions such as the need to have a Mayor - which is as divisive as it is attractive to the Chancellor.  Like Richard Burnett-Hall I would opt for a Government to show real strength and review local government but, unlike Richard, I think that county boundaries are things of history and don't necessarily reflect modern functional economic areas or are adequately responsive to communities.  I'd go for a network of unitary councils reflective of the communities they serve.

  • So far, so good - but only up to a point.  The cities Osborne has in mind do not exist all on their own, but as the centre of a wider region throughout all of which the provision of many aspects of essential public services have to be integrated, e.g. transport, health, education. housing, waste disposal and water supplies, among many others.  It makes little sense to devolve powers to the core areas and to do nothing comparable for the wider areas around them.  The Local Government Association issued a report earlier this month making the case for this, but that shies awway from advocating the substantial re-organisation needed to give such a wider region an accountable governing authority that is democratically elected.  An elected mayor of the central core, unaccountable to the wider region, is no substitute for that, and indeed might well exaerbate differences, when co-operation is required.  Certainly, to avoid excessive bureaucracy there would be a consequent need to abolish one of the existing layers of local government, probably the county councils, though arguably it is the district councils that should go.

  • The appointments of Greg Clark and Jim O'Neill are much to be welcomed, as is the change in direction of travel that has been signalled.

    Time after time - following informed investigation, including the Kilbrandon Review, Layfield Report and most recent Lyons Review (2004 - 2007) - when given the choice between devolution or centralisation of power and finance, governments have opted for centralisation. Reports have even been written explaining in detail why it is not viable to levy taxes other than the Council Tax locally, and rather like the bumble bee, which continues to fly despite scientific evidence that it can't, local governments across the world continue to levy a range of taxes locally quite efficiently in quiet defiance of the evidence.

    Meaningful devolution of power must mean devolution of tax decisions and not just spend decisions if people and places are truly to be free to shape their own futures. Just rationing a cake the size of which is determined centrally, I would argue, is not meaningful devolution. 

    Systems of governance, too, must spring from local preferences - whether for Mayors or regional structures. The restriction of decision making in local government to a cabinet of ten councillors, imposed by central government for the very best intentions of improving efficiency, has arguably increased the democratic deficit and left huge cohorts of local government electors without effective representation. The sort of structures that the centre prefers to do business with will not always be those that best serve the interests of local people.

    And with those caveats I wish all those working in government on such changes all the very best .. 

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