A notable feature of the 2015 general election campaign was the degree of apparent unanimity across all parties that Britain has an overcentralized governmental structure, which is ripe for devolution.
In the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, and the desperate resort to ‘devo -max’ to save the day for Better Together, this was hardly a surprise.
But the superficial unanimity of the narrative concealed a gaping void in the intellectual underpinnings of what a devolved governmental structure might look like. From both the Tory and Labour camps, the message was a fuzzy ‘make it up for yourselves and we’ll discuss it with you’ – in effect, ducking any intellectual engagement with the tricky issue of taking fiscal and social policy responsibility out of the hands of Whitehall and Westminster and into the hands of local communities and their elected representatives.
That political and intellectual evasiveness continues to dominate both Labour and Tory thinking.
The government’s policy since the election has justifiably been described as incoherent and inconsistent by the Local Government Select Committee, and Labour-led local authorities have been ploughing their own local furrows without any coherent party policy to refer to.
In practice, the government’s approach has been a travesty of genuine devolution. Their policy is best described as an incremental extension of the City Deal/Local Growth Fund policies inherited from the Coalition period. Local authorities are encouraged to come together to propose expenditure plans (notably for transport, housing and skills infrastructure) that will promote economic growth over a medium-term period.
In return for a multi-year capital funding allocation, the local authorities are expected to create a different and more unified decision making structure across their chosen area, preferably with an elected mayor at the helm of the new structure.
Three things are notable about this policy:
it takes powers away from local communities and places them in the hands of more distant combined authorities and their elected mayors;
no fiscal devolution is being offered;
the capital allocations are timebound, while the new structures of local government are permanent. In brief, it’s a policy of local government reorganisation by stealth. Devolution is not on offer.
This conclusion is reinforced by the simultaneous stream of massively centralising government measures which have drained even more powers out of local community control, such as the Housing and Planning Act, which spells the death of social housing and dictates how local housing markets should work, the nationalising of schools through academisation, and central control of Council Tax levels.
Labour’s policy is unclear. The innovative work that was undertaken by the LGA Labour Group and the Local Government Innovation Taskforce before the 2015 Election and published in ‘People, Power and Public Services’ has been forgotten, and the centralising instincts that come from the worthy desire to ensure that all our citizens get equal treatment regardless of where they live, have revived. The party remains strong in local government and there needs to be more policy engagement with the issues of devolution, community involvement, local government structure and local democracy.
From discussions with other Labour local authority leaders, a framework for rethinking the party’s approach to devolution is emerging:
The old two tier local government structures are no longer appropriate and the basis for devolution has to be new unitary authorities. A rational approach to the creation of new unitaries which respect community loyalties and pride in ‘place’ is required. This process should be overseen by an Independent Commission and undertaken within a defined time period.
A wide measure of freedom for local authorities to set their own levels of taxation, and service charging structures, allowing them to raise and control a large proportion of their income locally.
A transfer of business rate income to local authorities with a redistribution mechanism which recognises the differential capacities and needs of different communities and is not skewed by government bias towards their own councils – whatever the colour of the government in power.
A re-establishment of local education authorities with strong links to the skills agenda and to children’s services.
A national structure merging adult social care and local health services, managed through an Expert Group that can bring about the necessary transformation of service structures within a defined period.
A revived public scrutiny system based on panels drawn from large ‘colleges’ of scrutineers, whose composition reflects the social and demographic make-up of the area.
No requirement for directly elected mayors which run directly counter to the aim of drawing local communities closer to the decision making processes which affect them.
As the new party leadership develops the agenda for the next election we should be endorsing genuine devolution of power to local communities. Place-based unitary authorities should be reflective of, and responsive to, their residents and services should be delivered by ward-based political leaders open to regular scrutiny and challenge.