Government must turbo charge devolution in Queen’s Speech
As we look to rebuild the economy and level up the country, the time for a new approach to devolution is now.
The Queen’s Speech today will set out the government’s programme to rebuild from the pandemic and to level-up the country. It is vital that this programme unleashes the power of communities and local government by beginning a new, bolder phase of devolution.
This must be more than moving the deck chairs as it is time to reimagine the British state and turbo charge devolution. By doing this, we can move away from a centralised model of governance where Whitehall is overburdened, and local areas are underpowered.
In March when when the APPG on Devolution, which I chair, launched its report “Levelling up Devo”, we looked at the role of central government in making a success of devolution in England. Throughout the pandemic local government has proven that it can be trusted to deliver. Councils across the country have demonstrated the benefits of a place-based approach with responses that were often faster, more flexible, and more impactful than that offered by Whitehall.
We also found that the role of local government will be vital to rebuilding the economy in a way that levels up the country, rather than entrenching regional inequalities. It is clear that many of our recommendations have struck a chord both in Westminster and in town halls across the country. The Queen’s Speech and a new legislative agenda are the perfect opportunity for government to embrace them.
We need to let local areas draw down the powers that they need to meet local needs, without jumping through Whitehall hoops
If we are to make a success of devolution, we also need to fix some of the big challenges facing councils. Arguably no challenge is bigger than delivering a long-term plan for adult social care.
Indeed, I recently argued in Parliament that throughout the pandemic local government has stood shoulder to shoulder with the NHS in tackling Covid-19. But for social care to continue to play its full role we need government to find a way to bring more money into these vital services – as it often does with the NHS – so that we can take a preventative approach to public health that supports people to live independently for as long as possible.
A solution cannot wait any longer and must fully involve local government, rather than being just an NHS power grab. Although the idea does not find universal favour, I remain convinced that an insurance element to the future of adult care is the best way forward.
As we look to rebuild the economy and level up the country, the time for a new approach to devolution is now. The government’s deal-based approach linked to the creation of metro mayors played a clear role in kickstarting the process of English devolution, but it has now run its course.
Given the scale of the economic and social challenges ahead, the need to make swift progress, and recognise that metro mayors are unlikely to be appropriate for every community, government needs to widen its approach and consider new models. We should jointly create a new way forward, co-produced by national and local government.
Devolution from Whitehall to councils should be by default and at the heart of the government’s approach, rather than central government “allowing” local authorities to have more influence over certain policy areas within tightly centralised parameters and with the option to take those powers back at any time.
Some feel that discussions about governance and structures have taken too large a role in the English devolution process to date. Specifically, the government has expressed a clear preference for new forms of devolved governance rather than devolving powers to existing organisations. Whilst there may be advantages to reorganisation and the formation of combined authorities particularly where there is agreement to do this in local areas, many have argued that it must not be a compulsory precursor to councils taking on new powers. What is less debatable, however, is the need for real progress on devolution, whatever the specifics of the delivery mechanism.
The APPG’s “Levelling-Up Devo” report also recommended that government commit to working with councils to set out a National Devolution Baseline for England, including a list of new powers available to every council, without the need to negotiate a devolution deal, as well as further powers which are available subject to clear eligibility requirements.
Effective devolution has been held back by both constitution and culture. The UK is currently one of the most centralised of any advanced democracy. Virtually all British governments claim to be in favour of devolution and localism, but the actual appetite for ‘allowing’ power and decision making to reside at a local level is much more variable.
Despite its long history, local government is not always treated with due respect in Westminster or Whitehall. Government departments have too great an ability to limit the genuine devolution of powers and resources and can operate as silos with inflexible national priorities that are not culturally or organisationally equipped to support local place-based leadership. These tendencies have limited the devolution of powers and have often constrained the effective use of devolved powers.
Centralised structures have ossified into a centralist culture. A national ‘one size fits all’ approach is seen as the default for any policy priority. We need to let local areas draw down the powers that they need to meet local needs, without jumping through Whitehall hoops. A move away from “bidding culture” would be a welcome step in the right direction.
As chair of the Devolution APPG, I look forward to working with Ministers and across Parliament so that a new devolution settlement is delivered. One that empowers local areas to do things differently and supports the government’s agenda of levelling-up and building back better.
Andrew Lewer is the Conservative MP for Northampton South and chair of the APPG on Devolution.