Dear Michael Gove, here’s what real devolution looks like

December 14, 2021  

Following the leak of Gove’s devolution plans, Adam Lent explores the difference between a devolution designed to empower communities and places and one that is stuck in an outdated focus on restructuring and competition.

The Independent has got hold of a leaked draft of the Levelling-Up White Paper. As one might expect of Michael Gove, it is highly ambitious; seeking to roll out a new model of local government across large swathes of the country while devolving powers. But while the scale of Gove’s ideas are unprecedented, the nature of his changes are not new. Its key elements are very much in line with the approach to devolution that has been knocking around Whitehall – and implemented to a limited extent – over the last 25 years or so.

A vision of devolution with an entirely different logic and look can be found in the demands of We’re Right Here – a new campaign supported by New Local and led by community activists that was launched just a few days before the Indy leak. It is a vision that draws heavily on themes New Local has been developing over the last few years and which is now widely known as community power.

Given that there is a good chance of a battle emerging between the establishment and the community powered vision of decentralisation, I thought it might be helpful to identify the core differences in tabular form. (We do love a good grid at New Local.)

the White Paper vision feels positively prehistoric […] developed before the 2008 Crash, before the pandemic, before we all became aware of the emerging environmental perma-crisis.

Presented in this way, it is clear how vast a chasm exists between the establishment and the community-powered versions of devolution. I’m going to let my obvious preferences show but the establishment, White Paper vision feels positively prehistoric. It could have been (and, in fact, was) developed before the 2008 Crash, before the pandemic, before we all became aware of the emerging environmental perma-crisis. It’s a vision that assumes popular trust in and allegiance to the organs of state and big business, a growing global economy and a planet not stretched beyond its natural, sustainable limits.

The community-powered version may sound less hard-edged than the technocratic economism of the establishment approach but it is far better adapted to the world as it is today. One where people can’t be expected to be satisfied with a vote once every four or five years as a way of conferring legitimacy. One where those delivering public services day in, day out increasingly recognise that they need to mobilise communities to prevent the growing instances of personal crisis. One where stable local economies are a better route to equality and sustainability than simply competing for investment from volatile global corporations whose allegiance to a community counts for far less than the latest quarterly returns.

Of course, the establishment version of devolution very much has the upper hand right now. But no-one should underestimate the power of a determined grassroots campaign to shift thinking especially when the existing vision is clearly well past its prime.

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