Will devolution create better places?

manchester town hallDevolution in England is gathering pace, particularly in Greater Manchester and Yorkshire, but what will it mean for the communities involved? Will devolved powers and new funding settlements lead to healthier, happier places or just create another level of administrative bureaucracy?

Voluntary Sector North West asked charities, think tanks and health and civic organisations to give their views on how the planned changes will impact on their work and on the communities in which they operate. It published the findings in a pamphlet called Devolution, Our Devolution. Over the following pages are nine essays assessing the potential and the drawbacks of devolved power in English regions.

1. Devolution for all: Neil McInroy

2. Civil society should lead the charge for a new British politics: Ed Cox

3. Devolution can allow a new ‘hyper-local’ social infrastructure to emerge: Mark Morrin

4. Where are the citizens in devolution plans? Judy Robinson

5. City regions as organisational frameworks for austerity 2.0: John Diamond

6. Devolution, democracy and decreasing inequalities in health: Ben Barr

7. The democratic deficit in devolution plans cannot be ignored: Dil Daly

8. Beyond Metro-centralisation: Andrew Walker

9. Devolution Derailed: Off the beaten city tracks: Anina Lone

neil strelka photo 2Devolution for all

by Neil McInroy, Centre for Local Economic Strategies (Cles)

Devolution from Whitehall is not the end. It is merely the means. For me, the ends are a ‘rebalanced’ economy, less poverty, better public services and a healthier democracy. Within a massive programme of public sector austerity, is devolution in England going to get us there?

To date, the government and the treasury and some exuberant think tanks have done a good job in making the case for devolution. I would suggest there is some devolution groupthink, aided by a Westminster media which is gushingly positive. We are partly led to believe that reducing demand on public services and rebalancing of the economy will be achieved through ‘city economic growth’. We are led to assume that economic growth will solve poverty through the accompanying well paid job bonanza.

Of course devolution is good. And I hate being a misery, but let’s inject a dose of scepticism. This devolution agenda is not driven by a desire to address social issues. Nor is about closing the gap between rich and poor. Devolution in England has mostly been about public sector reform under the rigid parameters of a hellish austerity. It’s not bucking it.

Of course we will get some improvement as local government are masters at doing great things with increasingly little. But let’s face it, we have and we will get more social pain and denuded services whether we have devolution or not. In terms of economic growth, devolution is framed by a treasury-backed agglomeration economics in a few selected locations, namely large cities. This is fine, but economic success with a focus on agglomeration is no panacea. It also tends to come with poverty, low wages and insecure employment (just check out London, which has 650,000 children living in poverty). I suppose we can hope for trickle down or trickle outwards?

This is a asymmetric willy-nilly national

policy carve up, with destination unknown

Furthermore, devolution delivered at different speeds in the large cities, as well as the lack of devolution to smaller cities or counties creates an asymmetry, in which some cities – who are already winners – will be even better at competing for investment. This city devolution may deepen not address national inequality.

I am for devolution. It is badly needed. However, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Devolution should be about working out what sort of England we want to live in and what sort of democracy we need to get there. However, the wider population, civil society and local business are absent from the debate and influence. The outcomes may well be weaker for it. Why can’t we have something like the Scots had last year?

We should not be embarking on what could be a new English social contract through a series of one off bilateral deals in which UK ministers seem to be dishing out largesse. In an election year, the basis to how we are governed should be free from any hint of electioneering. The Westminster media bubble may lap this up. But let’s stick the boot in: this is a asymmetric willy-nilly national policy carve up, with destination unknown.

In no way am I suggesting we put the brakes on devolution. We have waited far too long for anything to start refusing devolution. Cities with new deals should go hell for leather and make it work and push for more. However, this potentially progressive undertaking is at present unsatisfying. For means to reflect the ends, we need a deeper conversation and a comprehensive approach.

cox3_HICivic society should be leading the charge for a new British politics

by Ed Cox, director of IPPR North

Devolution in England has been a long time coming. And although it appears now to be having its moment we should be wary about getting too excited until the rhetoric becomes a reality.

The Greater Manchester ‘deal’ is a game-changer insofar as it brings together a suite of powers concerning economic development – transport, skills and employment support, trade, business support, housing, planning – along with crime, health and social care in a way that the respective government departments have failed to do of their own accord. It is precisely this ‘programmatic approach’ that has been lacking outside of the devolved nations and that is the most likely way to effect culture change at the centre of government.

Furthermore, the Greater Manchester agreement combines economic development and public service innovation with the third leg of the devolution stool: democratic reform. There are many who will decry the idea of a Greater Manchester mayor: some purists who see power wrapped up in a single ‘celebrity’ as being a backward step for a broad democracy and others that smell an Albert Square/Parliament Square stitch up. But there’s no doubting that new powers must bring new accountabilities for the Greater Manchester leaders and the mayoral model developed in Manchester is more efficient and democratic than that of London. So at the very least it’s a pill worth swallowing for the sake of growing autonomy.

It was Scottish civil society that showed its discontent with the

Westminster and now it’s time for English civil society to move centrestage too

What the Greater Manchester agreement is lacking is any real sense of fiscal devolution. The earnback deal could bring the city £30m a year for thirty years which is not to be sniffed at, but in the context of a £22bn budget – of which only £1bn is now delegated – it is still relatively small beer. (Remember that in countries like Germany and Sweden over half of public spending is raised and spent locally).

So what does this mean for the voluntary and community sector? Economically, greater devolution can only be a good thing. The sector knows better than most the fact that scarce resources are rarely a zero sum game. Greater local growth will at be at the expense of anywhere else but if city growth is unleashed then it will surely grow the pie and reduce inequalities. International evidence shows that the most decentralised developed nations are also the least unequal and have the highest levels of wellbeing.

From the point of view of public services, those organisations already commissioned to provide services may find it easier to negotiate and renegotiate more bespoke contracts with more emphasis on social value. Those with weaker relationships with local authorities may fear them getting more power – or more power being sucked towards central Manchester. These are legitimate concerns but the only way to address them is through negotiation and challenge. And better to fight a battle closer to home than with a faceless Whitehall bureaucrat.

But perhaps the biggest opportunity concerns the role of civil society at large. One of the main causes of the English devolutionary moment was the fact that the people of Scotland found their voice. It was Scottish civil society that showed its discontent with the Westminster parties and now it is time for English civil society to move centrestage too. It is hard to see immediately which issue, let alone which party or territory, will cause the English will find their voice, but one thing is clear, any constitutional convention cannot be organised in Westminster. The voluntary and community sector outside London should be leading the charge in redefining British politics for the generations to come.

MM_photoDevolution can allow a new ‘hyper-local’ social infrastructure to emerge

By Mark Morrin, ResPublica

The agreement, reached with the chancellor, to give new powers to the combined authority of Greater Manchester marks an historic turning point and the beginning of an incremental process that can, in time, lead to full place based devolution for Greater Manchester and other city regions in the UK.

It is right that in return for greater powers places should commit to strengthening local governance and accountability for decision making and public spending. And this will need to include consideration of directly elected mayors. But devolution should not be limited to a muncipalist agenda, whereby local government can lay claim to run everything better than the centre. It will not be sufficient to devolve to a lower tier authority in order to recreate the command and control model of the centralising state on a micro level.

If devolution is to enable the necessary transformation of our public services and the renewal of our democracy then a deeper commitment is required to devolve further still, beyond the town hall, to our neighbourhoods and local communities. This would allow hyper-local solutions to be implemented, mobilising all social and economic resources, while connecting communities more deeply, with city-wide priorities, ensuring that localities see the benefits of devolved spending, and that ordinary people have a greater say over how their services are run locally.

A new localised model of public service delivery is required to overcome the problems of service silos and the conflicting interests of the local and national state. One that provides the fullest possible integration of public services, and which concentrates on the holistic care of the person and their community.

We need to shift culture and practice so that citizens are

able to shape their own civic institutions as engaged participants.

The current system all too often precludes this possibility. Large, standardised, one-size-fits-all services are failing to meet the real needs of service users, with little evidence to support the assumption that economies of scale deliver high volume outcomes, and low costs. If we consider the succession of employment programmes over the past twenty years it is clear that even in the best of labour market conditions standard services cannot make a significant impact on the people who need the most help – the long-term unemployed, and those with complex needs.

Services must be bespoke and personal. They must operate at a human scale and not on the basis of industrial mass production. They must be upstream of current thresholds for action and integrate at the earliest possible stage, to ensure that prevention genuinely results in a lessening of demand on, and cost of, public services.

We need to mobilise all sectors – public, private and social – to generate shifts in behaviour and norms; to create ‘mass bespoke’ services that promote independence and tackle the root causes of dependency and failure.

A devolved settlement is about finding a new way of working which enable local areas to look for the best response as opposed to the existing approach to service delivery. And this should involve local government acting as the enabler, devolving where appropriate to the very local level, using community engagement and new forms of innovative service delivery. We need to shift not just the debate on devolution but the culture and practice, where citizens are able to shape their own civic institutions, not as passive consumers or customers, but as engaged participants. Where ‘local by default’ becomes a central principle for all services.

The best and most enterprising sectors of the social economy already offer many local examples of people-powered solutions based on local need and bottom-up, community ownership. These include many established and replicable models across a range of sectors and services, such as community finance organisations and credit unions; co-operative housing, schools and supermarkets; community broadband and energy companies. New models, alternatives and ideas need to found.

But as Social Enterprise UK report, often the big gap is small amounts of genuine risk capital that enables social enterprises to innovate and develop new services and products in response to a changing world. The creation of a local innovation fund, or what Locality have termed a ‘subsidiarity well’, as a portion of the greater devolved budget, would provide much needed investment in the development of community infrastructure and new localised production.

Greater devolution can help a new social infrastructure to emerge, by: promoting and applying new models of social finance based on place and community ownership; developing (and where necessary removing red tape) community, social and co-operative models of investment, ownership and control (rather than only conventional public and private partnerships) for new and existing services and products; and extending the social value act to infrastructure development and the management and disposal of assets to ensure that taxpayer-owned assets benefit local communities long into the future.

These are just some of the ways in which devolved investment in economic and social capital can be mutually enforcing. Helping to lock resources and assets into communities, driving investment and long-term value through creating jobs and apprenticeships, and enabling places to contribute as well as directly benefit from economic growth.

Judy-RobinsonWhere are the citizens in devolution plans?

By Judy Robinson, Involve Yorkshire & Humber

You can hardly move at the moment without falling over reports on northern devolution or ministers in high-vis jackets looking purposefully at manufactured things. Does it mean there’s a fast train coming round the corner soon or, more realistically, an election approaching?

Many of these reports ignore the people of the north. Are they citizens who might want a say or have useful ideas to contribute? We seem to be getting plans that no local people have discussed, let along voted for. Very little attention is paid to the democratic deficit that creates such disengagement from politics. Is it really just men talking to other men about train sets?

Council leaders will say that this is only the start. Civil society will certainly want to know what’s next and exactly how people are going to be involved in a real way.

Good jobs and a more prosperous north in charge of its own affairs is the overarching aim. Many charities support this ambition. However, they know that regeneration, economic development, social care and other plans fail to win support and achieve their potential, especially with the most disadvantaged and disconnected, when they are delivered top down, without consultation or partnership.

People must have a say in the decisions that affect

them and we want policies and plans that benefit everybody

We need to see a more dynamic and nuanced understanding of the local economy in all these debates. Business is organised in many different, legitimate and successful ways, not just through market mechanisms. Social enterprises and the wider social economy build social capital, reach those furthest from the labour market and improve the local skills base. Ideas about the ‘core economy’ that incorporate the assets of communities such as care, teaching and volunteering are too often neglected. These are not add-ons but critical aspects of sustainable economies.

The Scottish referendum has added force to the argument about decentralising Whitehall powers. It is an important debate because it is fundamentally about how we are governed. Who makes decisions and where is the accountability to the citizen?

It is important for the voluntary and community sectors. We believe people must have a say in the decisions that affect them and we want policies and plans that benefit everybody – because we pick up the pieces when this doesn’t happen. I think there are a number of points to watch:

1. People want more say in how their communities are run and what sort of society we are heading for. Devolving powers solely to local authorities does not necessarily offer this. If people are disconnected from Whitehall, they are often similarly disengaged from the town hall. We need a double devolution to citizens and the voluntary and community sector (VCS) is well placed to help this happen.

2. What is woefully lacking in the debate south of the border is the fundamental question about devolution. What is it for? Where is there anything about social solidarity or a more equal northern society?

3. Always be careful what you wish for. While redistribution formulae between English local authorities may be clumsy, they do reallocate money from rich areas to poor ones. How will councils with low tax bases in the north be better off when they have to raise all their local taxes without support from a redistribution formula? Wealth is so unevenly spread across the UK that some rebalancing is needed, not least so that services that support the most vulnerable don’t disappear in the least favoured areas.

4. There is still a question about the uneven national distribution of resources – housing, infrastructure, arts, skills, local authority services.

5. Another north-south reality is a 15 year life expectancy gap for a baby born in the north today, compared to the south. Out of 21 local authorities in Yorkshire and Humber, 13 have more than 20% of their children living in poverty and 10 have more than 25% in poverty.

6. Any growth policies must be deliberately targeted at those who most need the benefits of economic development and address inequality directly.

7. And talking of growth, we mustn’t forget that we really are running out of oil and that the climate is changing for the worse. Is there still a limit to growth?

8. There is much talk about cities as engines of growth. There must be equal recognition of the roles of rural hinterlands and small towns, not just as dormitories but as a vital part of the economy of regions.

This could be construed as being a long way from the VCS mission. Surely we should be getting on with our knitting and doing good works? Well, it’s not either or! Supporting people with food banks, welfare advice or learning new skills is essential, at least in the short term. But the VCS has a bigger view of the world. We are keen to tackle root causes as well. This means that we have to grapple with those long term determinants that shape lives and the economy.

We’ll have to get a voluntary sector view organised if we want to have a say in these changes on behalf of our members and communities. Watch this space.

John-Diamond-WebCity regions as organisational frameworks for Austerity 2.0

by Professor John Diamond, Edge Hill University’s Institute for Public Policy and Professional Practice 

With all changes driven by the centre, there is a risk that we interpret their significance only by reference to the immediate outcome and not by reflecting on the longer term processes they demonstrate or the opportunities they create. The coalition’s decision to move ahead with a devolution package for the city region of Greater Manchester is one of those moments to pause and reflect. We know that it is highly likely that the model set out by the government will shape future devolution settlements and we know too that it is probable that the new arrangements will be around for at least a decade.

I think there are three important aspects of the Greater Manchester package which are important to highlight because they will frame the next batch of city ‘states’ across England. The three elements are: inclusion of some aspects of health and post-16 education; abolition of the Office of Police and Crime Commissioner and this role being transferred to the third component – the elected mayor. All of these developments as well as the devolution proposal itself have serious and profound consequences for the voluntary and community sector.

Finally, I think that we need to reflect too on the (un)intended consequences of this proposal for the existing political and administrative structures of local government in England. On one level I think we can expect to see a move to restructure or to reform local government below the city region tier. I think that a further consequence of this process will be the creation of alliances of local authorities to press for devolution which cut across existing local government boundaries. This is already happening in Merseyside with the inclusion of West Lancashire District Council (and as a result this will lead to a restructure of Lancashire County Council) and the Cheshire authorities too. All of these changes have implications for the existing political parties, especially where one political party has acted as the provider of patronage and advancement for a small political elite.

The city region model provides an

organisational framework to introduce Austerity 2.0.

It is important to situate the present proposals in the context both of the austerity measures introduced post 2008 and a longer term discussion about the appropriate scale or level for effective strategic planning on economic development. In one sense we can place the present proposals as further iteration of the importance of geography or spatial relationships in the planning process. Over the past 25 years or so, we have had regional development agencies or the government offices of the region, both of which were cut by the coalition after 2010.

The city region with its elected mayor can be seen as yet another attempt to reform the organisational frameworks of local government and public administration to promote more effective decision making. Before the 1997 general election, New Labour had engaged in an extensive policy review including the governance of cities and the political decision making structures in local government. Out of that review came changes in local government and the creation of the cabinet system with an enhanced scrutiny role for back bench councillors. A key reform of this period was the idea of the elected mayor. Advocates of this model borrowed from the experience of US cities and to some extent states within the European Union. The creation of the Greater London Authority and the elected mayor for London are direct outcomes of this process.

An important part of the narrative of the reform process post 1997 was on democratic renewal and a revival of local democracy in particular. The reforms to local government imposed by the Tories in the 1980s were highly significant: the abolition of the urban regional tier (Greater Manchester, Merseyside and so on) now being reintroduced as city regions; the requirement to set balanced budgets and the disqualification of many Labour councillors who had opposed the centralisation of budgets and the capping of local budgets; and the start of the contracting out of local services from the sale of council houses to the local management of schools. The connection between the provision of local services and the decisions about what services were to be provided was being cut.

Elected mayors and the other reforms seemed to address these twin challenges: elected mayors could be held accountable more immediately than elected local councillors – they were a ‘single point of contact’ and the decisions that were being made might be more strategic than local – and as a consequence less partisan. Of course neither of these two propositions holds up under careful analysis. And the local democracy argument being put forward in 2015 is as weak as it was in 1997. There is a difference I think between the two periods. The most significant difference is that of austerity.

Austerity and the long term consequences of the coalition’s plans (adopted too by Labour) threaten to alter fundamentally the idea of the ‘local’ being independent from the centre in a way that those implementing the cuts in the 1980s could only imagine. I do think that the city region provides an organisational framework to introduce Austerity 2.0.

The elected mayor is being given a whole range of highly significant responsibilities and powers to set strategic objectives across transport, planning, economic development and education and skills. The addition of responsibilities for crime and disorder and some aspects of public health add to the importance of the role.

Another important difference I want to suggest between the 1980s and now is the absence of an alternative narrative. In the 1980s many Labour and Liberal-run local authorities were experimenting with alternative economic strategies, free public transport, the introduction of equal opportunity initiatives and tenant and resident participation strategies. I am not suggesting that these developments were wholly successful or always well thought through but there was an imagination and creativity which the austerity measures of post 2010 are taking away from local government.

In the current crisis, therefore, what is the role of the organised VCS sector? I think that the restructuring of the sector will continue. This process of change will, inevitably, involve cuts and closures. The cuts in the welfare state and the impact on communities and families with children and adult dependents will make their experiences harder. Inequality will get worse and the capacity of the public sector to protect and to support the most vulnerable will be stretched.

In this context it seems to me that a key and primary role for the VCS  is to provide a leadership role to the rest of the sector. I am not suggesting or advocating a role in which the VCS occupies a particular space and imposes their ideas on the sector. On the contrary I think that what is needed is a network or an alliance of individuals or organisations which has the capacity and energy to quite carefully and deliberately analyse the devolution package and act as critical informants to the rest of the sector.

Why does this matter? I think the worst strategic mistake we could do is to oppose the proposals without critically reflecting on them first and make an informed analysis of what is on offer. The issue is not a ‘directly elected mayor for Greater Manchester’ but rather the powers, responsibilities and duties that go with the new structure. What follows from this are questions which then focus on the potential spaces this new structure will create or not realise it has created and how might the VCS use that space? There is the simple necessity of understanding how the new institutions will work, the processes and systems of governance and decision making.

At a local level I anticipate further cuts in funding for infrastructure organisations. Over the medium term the some VCS organisations or consortia will become service providers. Their campaigning and lobbying functions will lessen and I expect there to be new networks which take up these roles. The sector needs to avoid boundary disputes or falling into the trap of seeking to maintain the status quo. And part of the need for a critical and informed analysis will be to look both at the new sets of institutions as well as the new decision makers. We should not assume a seamless transition from one elite to the same elite. We should expect that the new arrangements will be disruptive and disturbing for the local elites too.

The challenge for the VCS is whether we / they / us have the capacity and the willingness to co-create these new networks. We will need a renewed set of networks and organisations to share intelligence and analysis and we have to assume that the next two to three years are going to be difficult and messy. But there is an opportunity for a new leadership network of civil society ­­­­well as a city region level of leadership and thinking which is needed now more than ever.

Ben barr croppedDevolution, democracy and decreasing inequalities in health

By Ben Barr, University of Liverpool

Until recently proposals for devolution to city and county regions in England had largely focused on the benefits it would bring for economic development. There had been little debate about what it would mean for inequalities, in particular inequalities in health.

That was until the recent announcement that the devolution deal for Greater Manchester would include control over the total NHS budget for the region. It is likely that this will be the first of many similar arrangements for city regions. While reducing health inequalities is an explicit objective of the the Manchester agreement, whether it is likely to have a positive impact will depend on how the process of devolution happens in practice.

While some have raised concerns that the devolution of NHS resources marks the end of a National Health Service, others have welcomed it as our last, best chance to create a sustainable health and social care system. What is clear is that greater local control of public funds for housing, skills, employment support and the chance to join up health and social care, could address some of the root causes of health inequalities. In Due North, the independent inquiry into health equity for the north, we highlight some key priorities for action.

Firstly, devolved resources for health and social care will need to be used to develop support for healthy development in early childhood. This will require a shift in resources to the early years to maintain and protect universal integrated neighbourhood support for early child development. In Due North we recommended that the NHS pool resources with local government to support children’s centres and in many places such as Liverpool, this is now happening.

Devolution will only support effective action on

health inequalities if it addresses inequalities in power

Secondly, we recommended that local control of skills funding and the work programme, as has been to Greater Manchester, is used to provide integrated support for people with chronic health conditions and disabilities. To do this it must join up the best health care with vocational training, apprenticeships and workplace adjustment. The voluntary and community sector is often in the best position to support the inclusion of people with disabilities and needs to be engaged in this as equal partners.

Thirdly, with a larger proportion of the public sector budget controlled locally, through devolution agreements, this spending power can be used as a powerful tool to address inequalities by driving up working conditions, expanding the living wage, promoting high quality local employment and enlarging the social economy. The powers in the social value act can be used to procure in ways that keep investment in the local economy and maximizes the social benefit for local communities. Reducing inequalities will require new collaborative approaches that enhance local control. Where investment is needed in new services these need be developed by, accountable to and owned by local communities.

Finally, we highlight how poor quality housing – particularly in the private rented sector – is detrimentally affecting the health of the most disadvantaged groups in the north of England. The devolution of funding for housing along with other local sources of investment and assets, such as pension funds, needs to be used in partnership with social housing providers to invest in high quality affordable housing.

But, devolution will only support effective action on health inequalities if it addresses the inequalities in power that underlie inequalities 
in health. It needs to increase the power and influence that local communities have over public policy and the use of public resources. This means greater public participation in local decision-making. Decisions in Whitehall may seem distant and unaccountable to people living in the north, but decisions made by combined authorities will be no more democratic unless there is greater transparency and participation.

This is what is most concerning about the devolution agreement for Greater Manchester. Real devolution needs to come from below, driven by an alliance of citizens, community groups, charities and local businesses. This deal has been drawn up by a few civic leaders and Westminster politicians, with virtually no prior public debate, no involvement of the community and voluntary sector, users or employees of the services affected. The imposition of a mayor by Whitehall even when the residents of Manchester rejected one two years ago will do little to address the democratic deficit of these proposals. The response of the public remains to be seen, but anger about the way the devolution deal has been struck might be the catalyst that is needed for the people of Greater Manchester to demand a greater say in how power and resources are devolved and used in Greater Manchester.

Whether devolution shifts power from central government to regions, local authorities and communities will depend on what happens next. The community and voluntary sector needs to be at the forefront of advocating for and leading this process of democratising local economies and public services – ensuring that the voice of the most disadvantaged is heard in city halls, on health and wellbeing boards, on the boards of clinical commissioning groups and that public services are developed with and by the people that use them. Local government, the NHS and combined authorities will need to expand the involvement of citizens in shaping how local budgets are used, through mechanisms such as participatory budgeting.

Previously, local public sector organisations have tended to see themselves as accountable upwards to central government, particularly for action on health inequalities – we need to shift towards greater accountability downwards to the communities served by these organisations. In Due North we recommend investing in the community and voluntary sector to develop community-led systems for health equity monitoring that engage the public in holding local and national government to account.

How devolved resources for health, skills, infrastructure, employment and business are used will have major implications for health inequalities. While greater local flexibility in how these combined resources are used has the potential to reduce inequalities, this alone will not address the fundamental cause of inequalities in health – the relative lack of control and powerlessness of less privileged groups. If devolution further excludes these groups and does not widen democratic participation it is likely it will increase rather than decrease inequalities.

Dil DalyThe democratic deficit in devolution plans cannot be ignored

By Dil Daly, Age Concern Liverpool and Sefton

There is a strong feeling (supported by the financial figures) here in the north of England that national politics is a London-centric game resulting in disproportionate cuts and hardship being levied on the people in the cities and towns of the north, particularly affecting the vulnerable and the poor. This feeling of injustice has led to a strengthening of the ‘us and them’ division between north and south and a desire to do something/anything to redress the imbalance.

The popular answer, following the Scotland vote, appears to be devolution – or at least a much diluted form that has the support of George Osborne. But is devolution right for the people of the north and for the voluntary sector?

George Osborne’s model is largely city region based with an elected mayor providing leadership for several local authority areas. But do we want a mayor?

In the north east they had a vote and the result was a resounding no. In Liverpool the city had been one of 11 due to hold a public referendum on whether or not to introduce a directly elected mayor. Councillors voted to bypass the referendum and hold an election instead. In Manchester the election of a mayor was agreed by politicians, not the public, in response to new powers and a financial package offered by the chancellor, which Manchester’s politicians deemed too good to turn down. Not one of the major conurbations in the north has actually got a mayor because the people have demanded one. The democratic deficit inherent in this action is surely too great to ignore.

Looking at my own patch in Merseyside, will a city region reduce the number of politicians or just add a fresh layer of expensive bureaucracy on top? At a time when local councils in Merseyside only have sufficient money to undertake mandatory duties there is a convincing argument to be made that actually we don’t need local councillors. Their former role of deciding how best to spend the resources allocated to them in the interests of local people has gone; there are no decisions to make if the money available is already earmarked by statute for a particular purpose.

Looking at my own patch in Merseyside, will a city region reduce

the number of politicians or just add a fresh layer of expensive bureaucracy on top?

Will having a regional government see a flow of resources from south to north? I think not. Apart from London and the south east, the rest of the south would claim it too suffers from economic difficulties. I have heard the argument that we suffer locally because the resources we create are siphoned off to Westminster and only a proportion is returned. If we follow this argument of wealth being distributed to where it is created, London has a strong argument to retain even more money. London keeps only 6% of the tax raised in the city (compared to New York which keeps 50%). Now you may counter that much of this wealth is created in the provinces and returns to London only because the company head offices are situated there; but who is going to do the maths to work out exactly how much of that wealth should be attributed to each region and how transparent are the company accounts to enable that to happen?

Nonetheless it is objectively true that the north is suffering economically and socially in comparison to London and the south east and requires a new and different approach to kick-start an economic and social upturn. The aggregation of political power, decision making and the economies of scale occasioned by enlarging the geographic areas of governance could make a significant positive difference, but I would argue that the scale needs to be much larger than is currently countenanced. If we are to go down this route then I would advocate a single government for the north of England not a series of city regions where the surrounding towns are left fearing that their future will be both peripheral and subjugated to the needs of the city.

There is also the concern that the chancellor’s financial largesse will swiftly disappear after he gets the city regions he wants and then the mayors will serve the role of scapegoats being blamed for the failure of the regions in the north.

And what of the social care orientated voluntary sector in this new world? The move to city regions or larger governmental footprints should increase the funds available for commissioning that part of the sector which wishes to be public service providers. It will also reduce the headaches that these larger organisations encounter in negotiating contracts with numerous local authorities all of whom have different pay scales, terms and conditions and required outcomes.

For the smaller, local organisations, however, it could be threatening. The local perspective may be lost as local councillors lose powers or are deleted and the focus becomes on large-scale regional projects. The voluntary sector would follow the high street’s loss of independent, local traders in favour of the large hypermarkets. The ‘Tescoisation’ of the sector could easily result in fewer, larger, more generic voluntary agencies providing the bulk of services at scale leading to the demise of numerous smaller, specialist, local organisations. Whatever happened to that localisation agenda?

I am unsure as to what is for the best, but the people of the north deserve better than they are currently getting and the discussion as to how this can be achieved needs to happen now to minimise the suffering we see every day.

Andrew WalkerBeyond Metro-centralisation

by Andrew Walker, Local Government Information Unit

In October 2014, the RSA published Unleashing Metro Growth: Final Recommendations of the City Growth Commission. The report calls for the ‘reconfiguration of our political economy, with city regions at its heart’. It argues that we need a shift in decision making powers from the centre to the metropolitan areas, with greater financial independence and more influence in national decision making for cities. Metropolitan areas have a vital economic role, contributing massively to UK growth, providing employment and crucial services for millions.

The decentralisation debate has stepped up a gear since the Scottish referendum. Closer attention has been paid to local democracy and there is a real sense of dissatisfaction with the top-down Westminster model of policy making. Unleashing Metro Growth is the latest in a wave of recent reports attempting to shift the locus of power away from London. Think tanks such as ResPublica and IPPR have made some broadly similar arguments in the past few months and the noises made by George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband suggest that a consensus is forming around the need to decentralise power within the UK.

It is right and good that discussions about increasing the powers available to cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol are occupying such a prominent role in the national discourse. Not before time there is serious consideration of alternative democratic arrangements, acceptance that the current model does not work in everyone’s favour, that complex problems are best solved locally, and that big, important decisions do not always have to take place in Westminster.

Creating a ‘cities’  seat at the Cabinet table

is a telling indication of where we might end up

The RSA’s report contained a raft of innovative and interesting policy recommendations that would help to move significant powers away from Westminster. The report is also careful to note that the metropolitan areas it discusses do not exist in splendid isolation, but are intimately connected with surrounding non-metropolitan areas.

We should be wary of replacing one consensus with another, though. Engineering decentralisation from the top down is likely to reproduce many of the same problems and blockages that already exist because it tends to assume that there is one framework to solve all problems. Creating a ‘cities’  seat at the Cabinet table is a telling indication of where we might end up if the debate is always limited to the location of power, rather than the nature of power itself.

The Scottish independence question was always about more than economic growth. Equally, localism is more complex than that. It is about identity, social networks and giving people real power to determine their future. We should not assume that everyone from the north of England identifies with an extensive Liv-Manc-Leeds-Sheff urban conurbation. Many living in counties and districts face serious challenges that should be addressed locally, with local control to target resources as effectively as possible.

The County Councils Network recently pointed out that over 50% of the UK’s population live in counties, which account for 40% value added to the economy. Metropolitan power centres are not necessarily the most relevant model for people in these areas. Also, there is even a great deal of difference amongst those within the big cities. The Greater Manchester combined authority is so successful, arguably, because it allows for multiple and overlapping identities.

The UK is a social, political and economic patchwork, with huge regional variations. Decentralisation should take this into account, recognising that there are many solutions, not just one. It should be built from the bottom up, through collaborative engagement between citizens, the state and civil society. As Jonathan Carr-West argued recently, we have a real opportunity, following the Scottish referendum, to deliver a truly localist agenda by reinvigorating existing democratic structures across the country, investing real power in social networks and trust in civic relationships.

It is a huge step in the right direction that decentralisation is so prominent in the national debate. However, if we believe in these principles we should carry them through and empower communities at all levels and in all areas, accepting that this will look different in different places. We should be careful not to replace centralisation with Metro-centralisation.

Amina 1Devolution Derailed: Off the beaten city tracks

by Anina Lone, Social Action and Research Foundation

There is an excitement in the air. Sparks of change and empowerment are afoot while local government is on the brink of holding billions within its grasp through unprecedented devolution packages.

Devolution is the buzzword of the moment and city regions old and new are lining up their golden eggs. Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester Council, spoke about the Greater Manchester bid as ‘revolutionary’ and one that ‘other cities will want to adopt and copy’. He is right and it is perfectly understandable for other city leaders to want to emulate this success.

There is one slight snag in this magnificent metropolis vision. It’s all about cities. Don’t get me wrong. It is clear we must invest, grow, devolve and free up our cities to be the powerhouses they clearly are. In total, 54% of the population are in cities but account for 9% of land use and cities in the UK account for 15% more output for every worker then non-city areas. There is a clear demarcation of the economic and cultural value that cities hold.

What is missing from this one-sided story are the towns, villages and coastal communities where the other half of the country lives. To ensure we have a more equal, balanced and valued society we have to make sure that any devolution deals include the places off the beaten city tracks.

What is missing in this magnificent metropolis vision are the

towns, villages and coastal communities where the other half of the country lives

Places like Morecambe and Lunesdale, a coastal town on the north west coast or Burnley, an old market town. Often, these are seen as sleepy places where people go to retire. Yet the reality couldn’t be more different. Places like Morecambe are reinventing themselves and offering tantalising possibilities to new, diverse and younger crowds. There is a thriving arts scene in Morecambe and earlier this year a revived local carnival attracted 30,000 visitors and brought £1m into the local economy. When 32% of local people aged 16 to 74 year olds work part-time with the numbers rising to 41% in the Upper Lune Valley, that kind of regeneration is not to be sniffed at. Especially when the carnival charge, led by a committee headed up by local businessman David Brayshaw, were all volunteers.

It is exactly this kind of innovation, risk and opportunity towns need to grab with both hands and make work for local communities. As the Labour parliamentary candidate for Morecambe and Lunesdale, I see the beauty of the bay, the lush Lune valley and ambition everywhere. The possibilities of what could grow from these fertile lands excites me.

There is change in the air and it is imperative that local communities, businesses, the older and younger generations are part of shaping the future. In coastal towns, and rural places the importance of transport connectivity is magnified, local jobs that pay decent wages, affordable housing and a healthy skills base are all lifelines to keeping the hub and spoke turning. There is capital investment in projects such as the M6 link road that will open up Heysham Port and the surrounding areas. With cities like London sucking up young people from across the countries, towns need to capitalise on any local projects, innovate, create local jobs to retain and attract the next generations.

Jenny Mien, leader of Lancashire Council understands this and is leading on a devolution package across the county. She said, ‘We know that if we do not change the way we work we stand the risk of being left behind in the wake of our region’s cities.’

Jenny is right. We must harness the abundant devolution spirit and shape it so it works for the communities in the towns and villages away from the cities.

However, there is a final piece of the jigsaw, which for me is a foundation piece of any devolution dream. Cultural and social capital often wrongly gets neglected in the bid for economic capital. Without a shadow of a doubt, we must create healthy, interdependent and thriving financial communities where people are paid a living wage, have good working conditions and a satisfied workforce.

But we know many poorer communities are struggling, that an older demographic who have seen unprecedented change in their life times are finding it difficult to adjust to a world rapidly changing around them. Many of these communities reside in areas like Morecambe and their sense of belonging and identity are as vital to their wellbeing as a good job and a decent home. The devolution package has to demonstrate to those that feel disconnected and left behind that there is a bright future and they have a role in shaping it.

We need to inspire hope and innovate. These are not luxuries that stop at the cities but vital arteries that need connecting to our poorer town cousins. If we are serious about changing the fabric of our country to be more reflective of all its people then we need to build infrastructure in places like Morecambe and Lunesdale. The vision and ambitions are there. It is not only cities that can punch above their weight. Morecambe and Lunesdale is already in training and I intend to be part of the march to see it shine in all its glory.


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9 years ago

Ed Cox says: “International evidence shows that the most decentralised developed nations are also the least unequal and have the highest levels of wellbeing”. Interesting if true. Where is this evidence, and does it show causality rather than correlation? If it’s the Spirit Level stuff, I’d say it definitely doesn’t demonstrate causality.

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