Not enough revolution in government’s devolution plans

October 16, 2019   By Adam Lent, Director, NLGN

So, Her Majesty told us yesterday that her counsellors will be launching another round of devolution. It won’t happen of course unless Boris Johnson marches back into Downing Street with something like a workable majority. But it shows that there is still appetite in Westminster for a policy that appeared to have lost its sheen. Unfortunately, this supposedly radical administration has plumped for precisely the wrong kind of devo.

The briefings around the Queen’s Speech make it clear that devolution will continue to be built around bilateral deal-making between the government and councils with a push towards creating mayors and getting rid of two-tier authorities. I realise the institutional memory at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government must be short given the rather rapid turnover in ministers, but it wasn’t that long ago that this top-down approach proved itself horribly cumbersome, expensive and ultimately very bad at delivering devolution.

The point is not that mayors or unitary authorities are a bad choice; the point is there is no choice being made at all. The devo-by-deal approach assumes the right of local communities to determine their own futures is in the gift of central government. But that, of course, is not the nature of a right. A right should be upheld not granted. Devo-by-deal treats our over-centralised system as the norm when in fact it is an unjust aberration.

This attitude tells us much about where Britain is going wrong. The inherent belief that elite groups know best and that ‘ordinary people’ are not to be fully trusted infects everything from parliamentary process to the commissioning of public services by distant professionals. Look there if you want to find the true origin of the disdain for experts and the political class that is currently so shamelessly exploited by extremists.

Our divided, angry country desperately needs a devolution agenda far better than reheating George Osborne’s technocratic attempts. The right of people to run their own communities requires a universal and radical decentralisation of powers. That shift must encompass every part of the country and it needs to involve all the policy spheres central to the functioning of a community labour market: welfare, transport, health and education.

Mention this to Whitehall mandarins and the haughty arrogance returns. They could never devolve such significant power to the well-established, highly professional, democratically-accountable bodies the UK possesses in the form of local councils. This is a view expressed with a straight face by the same people who were caught off-guard by the 2008 crash, designed Universal Credit and implemented the Lansley NHS reforms.

Reservations are justified to a limited extent though. A genuinely effective devolution requires two things which councils are not particularly good at.

The first is deep collaboration. The solution here is not new complex unitary structures but a statutory duty to collaborate. Central government could even retain the right to withdraw powers and resources from those councils that fail their citizens by refusing to collaborate fully. My guess is that loss aversion will play a much more forceful role in driving real co-operation than devo-by-deal’s promise of jam tomorrow.

The second is inclusive decision-making that hands real influence to people in communities. Devolving powers from elitist national institutions to elitist local institutions is no way to respect the right to community self-determination. Radical devo needs to come with an equally strong duty to make decision-making as open, inclusive and participative as possible.

Maybe this all sounds like pie-in-the-sky. We know that governments hate giving power away. But politics feels fluid right now. Overton windows are regularly being broken. A visionary leader or party that was minded to resolve the rancour at the heart of our national debate would do well to seize this moment and genuinely return power to the people.

This post originally appeared in the LGC briefing.

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