The UK has just completed its annual party conference season. For the uninitiated, it is a time when our major political parties gather – often in seaside resorts– to debate policy, hear speeches from leaders and agree their priorities for the next 12 months. While the spotlight at these events is – for once – away from the capital city, this is an illusion. The seaside resorts and major cities are chosen only on their ability to accommodate the wholesale – if temporary – transplantation of the Westminster village. On these occasions, London-centric control isn’t geographic, it’s a state of mind.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The UK has, in recent years, endured a deep recession and slow recovery; unprecedented cuts to local services; and an extensive set of welfare reforms – all dictated by the decision-makers of central government. England – overwhelmingly the largest part of the union – has become extraordinarily centralised over the past few decades, a trend that has been only slightly tempered by chancellor George Osborne’s promised to give more powers to a group of cities he dubs ‘The Northern Powerhouse’.
And yet, as OECD research has shown, elsewhere decentralisation is not only the norm, but actively on the advance. This is partly a question of simple efficiency: countries that are making budget cuts often like to devolve the detail to lower tiers of administration. Local leaders are often seen as being best placed to understand and mitigate the impact of cuts on the ground. At a time when national governments too often seem congested and overburdened with vested interest, clever city mayors are coming into their own.
Other factors are also at play. For example, there is an increasing recognition that the city is the crucial economic unit of the 21st century and if these are to thrive then they require greater economic power and autonomy. Technology, too, is important. It gives us more capacity and capability to work together in ways previously unheard of. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy the Occupy movement in New York City began a spontaneous and people-powered disaster relief operation that was far superior to what the government could initially muster.
Finally, new ways of collecting and analysing data are allowing us to plan more smartly and on a much more granular level than ever before – directing services to meet need almost on a street-by-street (and sometimes even house-by-house level.)
This set of global trends is affecting everyone across the developed world but they are playing out particularly acutely in England because of centralism’s peculiar grip on its system of governance. Like many other countries, the social state in England is under huge strain due to factors such as the ageing population and reduced financial resources.
There is a strong efficiency argument for devolution but, much more importantly, it comes down to the question of who makes the decisions. At the moment, certainly in England, there is a culture of national politicians deciding and everyone else being expected to go out and deliver those national choices. But as the top official of Britain’s communities department recently pointed out, central governments simply do not have the capacity to solve complex problems that stretch across a large and hugely varied nation. Instead, they need to play more of a supporting role in enabling local people to solve their own problems.
To genuinely provide better, more efficiently integrated services and make the most of our limited resources, we need to let local government leaders make decisions about how to handle the challenges they face. Let local people see how and why services are changing and ensure they feel part of the discussion. This isn’t about delivering results for national policymakers, but more about achieving impact for local people.
For this to happen, we need a far clearer understanding of what devolution entails and what it can achieve for local people. One of the reasons England’s North East voters rejected the opportunity to have a regional assembly in 2004 was that the new powers weren’t clear and it wasn’t obvious what it would really bring to the region. This meant it was very easy for the ‘No’ campaign to say it would just result in higher taxes and more bureaucratic fat cats.
What we have seen time and again is national politicians saying they want to devolve and then stepping back when it comes to actually offering up the powers. This needs to be made clear to local people before they decide, not as an afterthought. Any government that cannot say what powers it will devolve will not devolve anything meaningful. This is starting to change. The UK’s Chancellor, George Osborne, has made much of his plans to devolve power to the north of England and, at his own party’s conference, he announced new proposals for local government to retain 100% of locally raised business rates.
The fact remains, though, that England is still the most centralised country in the developed world. While any attempt to endow local government with greater power or responsibilities should be applauded, there is still some way to go before the country can begin to match what has already been achieved in other countries.
But the sooner it does so, the sooner its citizens will feel the positive public impact of what a devolved system of government can offer.
Taking power back: Putting people in charge of politics by Simon Parker is available to buy here.
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