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English devolution could come to be seen as the great domestic legacy of the Cameron Osborne era. But the project is in danger of foundering due to a lack of responsible stewardship.

The following paragraph from today’s DCLG Select Committee report on devolution deals is right on the button: 

We believe that the Government should set out the aims of its devolution policy more clearly, preferably in a way that would, over time, allow success to be measured. The Government needs a clear hierarchy for the many things it is trying to achieve through devolution—promoting local growth at minimum cost, achieving a better balanced economy, improving integration of public services, enhancing local freedom to experiment, bringing decision-making closer to local communities and enhancing the democratic process.

As the hosts of, and secretariat to, the City Growth Commission (as well as a forthcoming Commission on devolution and economic and social inclusion) the RSA is the last organisation to gratuitously criticise the process. George Osborne has gone further and faster than anyone envisaged and if his revolution succeeds it will, we believe, make a real difference not just to the distribution of power in England but to lives of its citizens. But will it succeed?

As well as the question of destination of travel, the select committee report rehearses a set of predictable but nevertheless powerful concerns:

  • Large parts of Whitehall still seem resistant to devolution; much Departmental policy and process is out of step.
  • Central Government lacks the capacity needed for the challenges generated by devolution: policy review and coordination, liaison and negotiations with individual councils, wider stakeholder and public engagement.
  • The committee identifies considerable ambiguity about the role and accountability of Mayors, and a concern that, facing a ‘fifth tier’ of local government, the public will be either hostile or apathetic. It also argues that mayors should not be imposed on non-metropolitan areas.
  • Overall (and this links all the points above) a more flexible, multi-speed, multi- model approach to devolution needs to be taken.

In a report to be published next week, the RSA will add another set of issues concerning the lack of fit between ‘big devolution’ which – as well as moving some power from the centre - is generally dragging power up to higher levels of local government and the largely stalled ‘localism’ agenda which is supposed to draw power down from local government to communities.   

As my colleague Charlotte Aldritt has written, the leftward shift of the Labour Party represents another challenge to devolution; nor should the growing hostility of Tory local government to what many councillors see as arrogance and negligence in Whitehall be underestimated.

The positive way to think about all this is that as long as momentum is maintained the myriad of difficulties with devolution will just have to get sorted. The negative view is that devolution is like a cartoon character that has run off a cliff edge without yet noticing the ground falling away beneath its feet.

I’m still just about in the former position, but as well as the massive task for local government to gear itself up for new challenges, George Osborne and his colleagues need urgently to show the kind of application, realism and flexibility needed to deliver on what remains a great ambition.  


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