It's hard not to be optimistic about the 'Devo' train when you see the glittering prizes on offer. But the road to devolution is a long one and there be dragons there. ‘It is time for you to take control of your own affairs’ is the stirring call to cities in the Chancellor’s first post-election speech. Before the headlong dash however, let's pause for thought on some important questions.
What are the English Devo deals on offer? What are the tricky issues? And what does road map to Devo look like?
Well first of all let’s look at the headlines from the Chancellor’s speech.
- English cities will get powers over housing, transport, skills and healthcare
- A Cities Devolution Bill will be in the Queen's Speech later this month.
- A minister has been appointed for the Northern Powerhouse
- Towns and counties will get devo in the form of the City Deals programmes
So far so good, although the deals with councils will only happen if they put an elected Mayor in charge. Red line issue as they say. And whilst the speech mentions fiscal devolution there’s no detail as yet.
Interestingly control of healthcare is mentioned twice and with Greater Manchester taking on the NHS budget surely others will follow. The NHS better wake up to Devo soon. The Towns and Counties offer looks a little flaccid compared to the core cities, despite LGA’s Gary Porter claiming it’s better than it sounds. John Redmond MP summed up the conservative’s offer recently when he said, ‘clearly only Scotland is getting the full devo package’.
Leading the Devo charge in England are three heavyweight ministerial appointments: Greg Clark at DCLG, Jim O'Neill (Chair of the City Growth Commission) at Treasury, and James Wharton MP for Stockton South, the new Northern Powerhouse Minister. Impressive statement of intent that.
And while the Chancellor was honouring his Election Devo commitments in Manchester, the Core Cities Group assembled in Westminster to call on the new government to do just that! Philip Blond (Respublica), George Ferguson (Mayor of Bristol), Charlotte Alldritt (RSA), Ed Cox (IPPR North) and Tony Travers (LSE), were in full flight at the launch.
Joe Anderson (Mayor of Liverpool) and Jon Collins (Leader Nottingham City), battled it out over the Mayor issue. Joe says Mayors are part of the deal, take it or leave it. Jon says it should be down to local decisions.
The tricky issues being debated at the Core Cities launch and elsewhere seem to fall into the following categories:
- The mayoral issue. Genuinely exercising councils like Nottinghamshire and many others.
- Equality: will devolution ultimately ‘level up’ the wealth of London and the North or will it ‘devastate whole cities’ as predicted in last week’s Guardian
- Lots of voices are calling for Devo for all. And what is the offer for towns and counties?
- What does it mean for UK PLC? What are the principles that bind us in a Devo world?
- Devo needs to go further. How feasible is fiscal Devo and what about the concerns of the business lobby about higher local taxes?
The aim of course is that devolution makes England a fairer society, a more productive one, and a wealthier one. Successful Devo reinvigorates the great northern cities, erases the north-south divide, and ends the begging bowl culture so prevalent in England’s public services.
Notwithstanding mayoral concerns, you can expect to see a ‘queue of councils forming’ (Sir Bob Kerslake). And what about the NHS? In or out? And if ‘in’, is that the end of the ‘N’? Here’s my take on why the NHS should be an essential part of all devo packages and not an add on.
What about the road map to Devo? Well we've now got one from the clever folk at the RSA.
Although aimed at Metros, it's applicable to all. The headlines are:
- We need a consistent and transparent approach to Devo deals
- This will require legislation, not least to set out powers and establish the new metro mayors
- An independent body (a Commission) should oversee the proposals pipeline, establishing criteria for proposals and assessing prospective candidates.
- Regions which can demonstrate competence, accountability and collaboration, and have the economic platform and potential to shoulder financial risks, should be able to enter into devolution negotiations with central government.
- The Committee would advise on a guiding list of the powers and levels of multi-year funding settlements available under which circumstances.
What about those Devo dragons? Well in addition to the challenge of avoiding the blame for cuts to programmes, there's surely a challenge to council's capacity to take all this on. And all of this will need selling back at home to local councillors, which will take up valuable leadership time as we enter Austerity Two.
Just some of the reasons why DevoManc has been ten years in the planning. Still the Devo road is one worth taking. Councils should swallow the mayor and seize the moment.
Rojo is a freelance contributor to CouncilManagers.Net, an independent news and analysis resource for council managers. This is an edited version of one of its newsletters.