“Saving devolution from itself”

Post in Oxford University Political blog. This is specifically about the north of England but could be about anywhere where “devolution” is being rushed through at break-neck speed:

“From the beginning, it seems that both the term ‘devolution’ and the processes behind it – in contrast to the more bottom up approach in Scotland – have been conceived by and for Oxbridge politicians, local authorities and suited-and-booted business representatives. This has served to exclude and disengage the public, as the agenda is often seen and perceived as something remote from our daily lives. Indeed, it is fair to say that a lot of citizens have never even heard about the Northern Powerhouse, City Deals or devolution.

Like too many things in this country, these are policies conjured up in the corridors of Westminster, in local authorities’ offices, behind closed doors, or at exclusive events attended by the few. Imagine: attending the ‘Northern Powerhouse Conference’ held in February 2016, costing only £450: a real bargain for a programme which focussed only on business, with no inputs from civil society and third sector organisations, minority groups, or young voices.

Beyond this, the way in which City Deals have been put on the agenda seems only to reinforce the idea that devolution in the North has little to do with democracy, and more with the needs and wills of politicians. Indeed, none of the Deals that have been signed so far in Northern city regions such as Greater Manchester and Sheffield have been involved in any real process of consultation with the public from the outset. Of the elites, by the elites, for the elites, one would be tempted to dare say. …

… STOP TALKING TO EACH OTHER, START TALKING WITH EVERYONE ELSE

If we are truly devolving power to local people, where are the people? Charities and the third sector have been almost entirely excluded. Grassroots groups have been ignored. Minority groups, communities of colour, young people – not at the table.

From the beginning, there has been a politics of division and neglect – dividing rural voters from urban ones or squabbling between northern local authorities, or everyone from the political elite doing their best to either ignore outside voices or proclaim their own powerlessness in the face of Whitehall and Osborne.

This is not to say that local authorities in the North are to be ‘blamed and shamed’. They have been between a rock and hard place, with the government snapping at their heels, all the way through the process that led to City Deals, and in the end they did what they had to do: accept what was on offer, so as to avoid their cities and economies falling further behind the rest of the country.

However, at the end of the day, in order to work the new structures that will emerge from the Deals (including elected City Region mayors) will have to take root in the local communities, and have the people behind them—at the polls in local and city region elections; but also on a daily basis.

Local politics could, and should, play a key part in this, as an agent of change—but to achieve such a goal local authorities need to turn their attention not only to what the government wants, but also to their citizens’ voices. In many ways, last week’s local elections were a warning, shining light on how a continuing disconnect at local level could undermine the whole devolution agenda from within.

So we need more people involved, not because it is more just, or out of fairness, but because it is the only way to make sure the new processes actually function in the long term, and regional democracy – and the systems and communities it is supposed to improve – becomes a reality rather than a dream.

Changing the North can’t be done without the people who live and work there getting involved and participating in such a process. We need organizations and institutions to come together and imagine a new style of politics, one which is pluralist and inclusive, and trusts and empowers communities.

We need to engage young people, working people and communities of colour in new and exciting ways. The real ‘revolution’ of devolution as a means to achieve regional democracy ultimately rests in this, and not in the politics of catchphrases heralded by the Chancellor.”

Saving devolution from itself: Building regional democracy in the North of England