A day for devolution

Daniel Goodwin

Thursday 14th May 2015 might not see celebrations in 800 years’ time in quite the same way as Monday 15th June 1215, which saw the sealing of Magna Carta. However it did see two events which are quietly momentous in local government terms. In the morning the Core Cities launched their Devolution Declaration in London, setting out five actions that they sought from government. And in the afternoon, in Manchester, George Osborne appeared to meet the first of these by announcing that the Queen’s Speech would include a Cities Devolution Bill, granting powers over housing, transport, planning and policing.

The Core Cities were caught by surprise and, whilst apparently delighted, had to make hasty arrangements to be present at the announcement. It remains to be seen whether the other actions set out in their package of measures will be implemented quite as speedily, time will tell. However they include a devolution commission, a place-based Comprehensive Spending Review, much broader fiscal retention and devolution and a Constitutional Convention to address UK-wide issues.

There has already been much comment in the local government press and on social media about the two events, so I will not try to summarise them here. However I am struck not only by the pace of change, but also the tenor of the debate. I have compared these with the points made by INLOGOV in its response to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s work on codifying the UK constitution.

We considered that any form of devolution will need to be addressed in the round. It should not just bolt on new service or tax based powers. Our response considered that there needs simultaneously to be a review of the responsibilities of individuals, communities, cities, regions and countries within the UK. In doing so it should also consider the questions of the extent of devolution of local government within all four countries and not just restrict itself to England. We considered that there should be some key guarantees on local determination, perhaps in line with the European Charter for Local Self Government, to which the UK is a signatory.

The 2015 General Election has left the UK with a highly diverse political picture in the four nations and at the more local level within them. The Government’s challenge is to find strengths in that diversity and prevent it turning into division. The key question is whether the changes will provide sufficient means of self-determination and self-government and embed these effectively in the as yet unwritten constitution. This will depend on the extent to which they are founded on community leadership and capability rather simply expediency in facing service cuts. Will the discussion be one about the principles of power sharing rather than long-winded discussions about structure? Can we have a debate on the future of the UK as a modern nation rather than one focused on service structures in England?

The Core Cities are to be commended for setting out their Declaration. It is an ambitious document which sees the challenge as ‘working together nationally and locally in a different way [to] transform the lives of millions and ensure our country can compete in an increasingly globalised and complex world’. The Cities Devolution Bill, with careful attention to principle as well as expediency and in the context of wider constitutional renewal, could just be the way to start to make that happen and help to address the wider devolution challenges which the UK faces following the General Election.

Know your local Councillor Photographs - St Albans - May 2008

Daniel Goodwin’s career has mainly been in local government, starting in libraries and cultural services and progressing through policy and corporate services. He is particularly interested in policy into practice issues, the links between strategy and finance, local leadership and the politics of communities and place. He is a regular contributor to journals, conferences and seminars.

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