Closing the Devolution Deficit should be focus of Devo Mark II
Giving powers to our towns and counties to shape their own destiny too can help engender partnership, not competition with our cities, says Mike Amesbury MP.
Earlier this summer, the political landscape in Britain changed as power and influence moved away from the established order and towards local people and action.
As one of 30 new Labour MPs elected this year, it might be expected that I’m referring to June’s General Election. However on this occasion I’m actually referencing May’s Metro mayoral elections, which saw the biggest constitutional shift within the UK since devolution to the nations almost 2 decades ago.
There was thus a welcome, brief, period when local government received a higher than usual media profile. It’s since however reverted largely to type with the media concentrating on Westminster, Brexit, and more on who is in Theresa May’s cabinet, than Steve Rotheram’s or Andy Burnham’s.
The challenge then is to make sure that government action and interest on devolution doesn’t follow the same path.
Whilst our Mayors and leaders are getting on with the job, and already making devolution work locally, next steps for the government are less obvious. One Deputy Mayor told me recently that she feared the government had “lost interest in Devolution” whilst others worry that Devo II will be little more than repackaging commitments in existing devolution deals that the government haven’t delivered yet. I know that MPs, especially in the Northern Powerhouse regions are pressing Ministers to make sure that isn’t the case, and our existing Mayors are already making clear demands about “what next?” – but the fact that such feelings are being expressed tells a tale.
Devo II shouldn’t just be about “what next” however. For me, and my constituents, the question of “where next?” is equally important.
As devolution takes our City Regions’ forward – places without devolved powers risk falling behind. As MP for Weaver Vale I am acutely aware of this growing deficit, with half my constituency covered by a Metro Mayor, and the other half not. Fantastic as Cheshire West and Chester council are in delivering for our area, the reality is they do not have the same powers to make a difference as next door Merseyside.
This means a postcode lottery for young people in my constituency as to whether they can access the cheap bus travel secured by Liverpool City Region for example. Similarly, when I meet to discuss skills and apprenticeships with Cheshire Business groups they look enviously at the levers and influence available to Metro Mayors in Merseyside and nearby Manchester – and fear a “brain drain” internal to the region.
Welcome as devolution to City Regions is, we can’t afford to create something similar to a regional version of the “West Lothian” question – and it certainly can’t be answered in a way that pulls towns, counties and rural areas even further away from our cities, economically or culturally.
Some may argue that differences are inherent in devolution – as free prescriptions in Wales, or University Tuition in Scotland show, whilst opponents of localism will argue that it is a reason to put a brake on further devolution.
I believe that the answer is not less devolution, but more. Giving powers to our towns and counties to shape their own destiny too can help engender partnership, not competition with our cities, and if all areas have the chance to make their own decisions then local differentials in what is on offer become issues of policy choice, not structural unfairness.
I know that delivering this isn’t as easy as many would like. There is disagreement on geography and accountability mechanisms.
Core City advocates will say that population and economy size mark them out as distinct – and they of course are. However, in both cases the answer should again be more, not less localism – in this case giving local areas the ability to choose what devolution model works for them.
The government should allow new areas to seek consensus and invite bids without the restrictive demands of the Mayoral model if they wish. It’s much easier for people to agree and unite around powers, than it is personalities. As someone who has spent decades working in or closely with local government, I know that there is the talent, experience, and ability to match or surpass what we have here in Westminster - so Mayor or no Mayor, we aren’t short of leadership. A localism that doesn’t allow areas to decide how they want to be governed isn’t really localism at all.
All the signs are that we’ll have a clearer view on “what next?” for devolution in the new year. But “Where next?” matters too
If the government want to truly make a success of devolution they don’t just need to let more go, they need to let others have a go too.
Devo II is their chance.
Mike Amesbury is MP for Weaver Vale and a member of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. He is a former Manchester City Councillor and member of Mayor Andy Burnham’s campaign staff.
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