The Northern Powerhouse of Greater Manchester has firmly embedded itself in the UK Government’s thinking, as demonstrated in the Budget announced last week. But what opportunities and challenges does this present Scotland with?
It is always fun coming down to London, catching up with my colleagues at the RSA and enjoying the delights it has to offer. But what has become more and more noticeable over the past year or so is that no trip is complete without an in-depth discussion about the political conditions in Scotland – the rise of the SNP, the decline of Labour, the future of the Union. These have been fuelled by the recognition that the independence referendum debate in Scotland was a vibrant and passionate one, and that the Scottish population engaged with this democratic process to a degree envied by political leaders south of the border. Looking at a map of the UK, with Scotland a bright mass of yellow at the top of a rather blue looking England, the idea that it is a country of independently thinking folk is easily reinforced.
Yet, this picture rather belies some of the reality of political life in Scotland. Despite being at the forefront of the devolution debate on a national level, Scotland remains a highly centralised country with power concentrated in Holyrood. Scotland’s 32 Local Authorities (either far too few or far too many, depending upon your thinking), remain the main vehicle of delivery of services yet can appear to struggle to exert control over their fiscal approaches, partly through the freezing of council tax rates and partly through what can appear to be a lack of desire to make use of existing powers. At the same time, the regionalisation (and consolidation) of Scotland’s colleges has led to what has been described as a ‘nationalised’ FE system, whilst the police and fire brigade have been centralised into single entities, rather than their previous structures. This isn’t to debate the individual merits, or otherwise, of each of these decisions, but taken as a whole picture they show a nation where power may be moving from Westminster, but isn’t getting much further than our award winning Parliament in Edinburgh. There are a number of reasons for this blockage, both intentional and otherwise, but certainly it is leaving double devolution as a goal not yet delivered.
At the RSA, we are an organisation who favour decisions being made at the most local level appropriate, and in supporting communities (and authorities) to facilitate this movement. As my colleague Charlotte covered in a recent blog, we are looking to develop work in Scotland to explore the degree of centralisation, identify workable alternatives and think through how we might move towards a more place-based delivery model. This will involve considering the economic geographies of Scottish communities; highlighting innovative work already taking place in local authorities, businesses and communities; and acting as a forum, a ‘safe space’ if you will, for discussions to take place that would otherwise struggle to break through the tightened political rhetoric. The current political environment in Scotland is one where opposition voices are probably the weakest they have been for some time, leaving a need for organisations like RSA Scotland to step up to create opportunities for constructive dialogue, debate and critique – neither supporting or fighting government for the sake of it, but rather offering an opportunity for policies to be tested or challenged.
And this space is essential if Scotland is going to meet the ambitious goals around growth, fairness and the environment which we have set ourselves. Identifying ways to successfully harness the power of our city regions, rural communities and human capital are crucial for ongoing development, particularly in a time where ongoing austerity policies are going to start to have a noticeable impact on the Scottish Government’s finances.
Additionally, the growth of the Northern Powerhouse idea – as reiterated again in the Budget - provides a potential threat to Scotland. A metropolitan hub around Manchester, with significant fiscal and civic powers, stands in noticeable contrast to the opportunities currently open to Scottish cities, and represent a risk to Scottish growth. Transport links are being strengthened across the North of England, whilst remaining relatively static in Scotland. Elected mayors in the North of England could harness significant powers over their areas, whilst local political leaders in Scotland appear at points to feel restricted (whether by the Government or by their own thinking) in what they can deliver. The story is one of devolution to parts of England, but not within Scotland, an irony as we watch further powers move from Westminster to Holyrood over the coming years.
Over the next few months, my colleagues and I will explore some of the ways in which we feel this environment can be changed, and how Scotland can harness internal devolution for maximum success and impact. We are in the process of developing a significant piece of work in this area which we will share in due course – if you are keen to know more or have ideas for how to address these areas, please drop me a line.
This is an exciting time for Scotland as a nation, and for the RSA in Scotland. Working together there is a real opportunity for us to support the goals we have a nation, and to bring fair prosperity to Scotland.