The draft Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill has both strengths and weaknesses but whatever its merits, says Keith Shaw, it needs to be seen as the beginning rather than the end of the process.
Last week’s publication of the draft Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill at least signifies the UK Government trying to put ‘Localism’ into practice. First mooted in the 2011 Localism Act, the term has been viewed as, at best, windy rhetoric and even worse as a smokescreen to hide increased centralisation. Spurred on by the Chancellor’s espousal of the idea of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ (including specific support for ‘Devo Manc’), and by the need to provide a devolution settlement for England in light of the recommendations of the Smith Commission on further Scottish devolution, the draft bill begins to outline an approach to how localism should be implemented and at what pace.
The Bill itself outlines a general framework for parliamentary orders to be passed – it provides a process within which central government and new configurations of local authorities can agree which functions should be devolved in which areas. In this sense, the main debates over the exact powers available and spatial remit take place later, when the orders are discussed for specific local deals. The three main features of the devolution opportunities contained in the Bill can be discerned however:
- To confirm the existing devolution deals (including the Greater Manchester Combined Authority comprising 10 local councils) and to provide a framework within which other Combined Authorities can be approved.
- To offer a range of possible devolution opportunities in relation to economic development, regeneration, housing, transport, skills, integrating health and social care and taking over the work of Police and Crime Commissioners. Deals will be locally-specific and ‘asymmetrical devolution’ will become the order of the day.
- A directly-elected mayor will lead the new Combined Authorities. Any individual council not agreeing to the mayor model can be removed by the Government from the Combined Authority arrangement.
The Bill can be commended for: recognising (somewhat belatedly) that running everything from London is unsustainable; offering a flexible bottom-up approach to devolution where councils bring forward their own plans; allowing for integration and collaboration across a wider local area; and arguably, boosting democracy and transparency by insisting on a directly-elected mayor.
Not surprisingly however, the Bill has been widely criticised by national and local politicians. Three areas of concern can be briefly highlighted.
Firstly, some local council leaders object to the imposition of a directly-elected mayor. Partly, they fear concentrating too much power in the hands of one person and are also concerned that in some large and disparate areas it would be very hard to find one person who could reflect the whole combined authority area. This is certainly the case in Combined Authorities in the North East of England, where one council leader said he would only adopt an elected mayor over ‘my political dead body’. Similarly, some MPs and Council leaders in the Midlands remain sceptical at best.
Secondly, while the original title of the bill (‘City Devolution’) was amended to include the more generic reference to ‘Local Government’, there are still concerns from more rural ‘shire’ counties that they will miss out on a predominantly urban agenda built around deals with the ‘core’ or ‘key’ cities.
Thirdly, even those sympathetic to the idea of an elected mayor feel that the Bill, as it stands, doesn’t provide sufficient powers. While mayors can set a council tax precept on the constituent councils, this is unlikely to raise substantial resources. Some observers think that they should have additional powers to borrow from the money markets to fund infrastructure projects and, hence, have some autonomy from the Treasury.
Above all perhaps, the Bill should be viewed as the start rather than the end of a process. The Government must go much further in supporting not just the devolution of spending powers in selected areas but a genuine commitment to local autonomy in raising revenues via increased fiscal devolution across all local authorities.