There was a phrase that I heard repeatedly at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester this week. It wasn’t the one you are thinking of; it was the description of local authorities as the organisations that have been ‘running the country’ while Westminster obsesses about Brexit.
The spirit of localism seems to have been reborn. Echoing the Prime Minister’s recent pledges, Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry toured fringe meetings promising more powers for combined authorities. And the Chancellor of the Exchequer promised a white paper on devolution in England, “giving local areas more local powers to drive investment in the infrastructures and services they know they need.”
At a joint Centre for London-Northern Powerhouse Partnership breakfast event, we discussed prospects for devolution with a collection of elected local leaders, business representatives, academics and policy experts. All agreed that the door to devolution – closed so firmly under Theresa May’s government – was opening again and that having a Prime Minister who had been a big city mayor could only help the cause.
But conference pledges are one thing, wrestling power from the grippy hands of Whitehall quite another. Most civil servants were conservative, said one former insider, and suspicious of the disruptive potential of services being adapted locally rather than provided to a single, nationally-dictated template. They would also raise concerns about the differing capacity of different places to manage their own services. These suspicions underpinned the piecemeal and faltering process of ‘city deals’ that had been seen since 2010.
Local leaders and their national champions needed to be robust in the face of these pretexts for procrastination. Some local politicians would succeed and ministers could bask their reflected glory; others would fail and meet their fate at the ballot box. Central government needed to learn to let go, and to invest in building capacity (as it does overseas).
The Chancellor’s speech was light on detail, but other ministers have talked of ‘levelling up and stretching out’ the combined authority model: giving all combined authorities the same powers as Greater Manchester’s, and enabling combined authorities to expand their reach to take in rural hinterland and satellite towns as well as big urban centres (as Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s combined authority already does).
These feel like good starting points, but they also prompt questions. Will devolution be conditional on specific models of local government – elected mayors and combined authorities – or should this too be a matter for a local decision? Can an expanded network of combined authorities really cover the whole of England, overlaid on an already complex and contested patchwork of unitary and two-tier local government? Or – for all the grief and disruption it would entail – is another local government reorganisation needed?
Secondly, is levelling up to Greater Manchester really enough? The combined authority, led by Andy Burnham, currently has the most comprehensive suite of powers outside London.
But should localities be looking to London instead (even though London’s Mayor and boroughs have a very different relationship from combined authority mayors and their constituent boroughs)?
Finally, and most importantly from a Centre for London perspective, devolution cannot terminate here. London has continued to argue for more powers – on planning, on skills and training, on employment support – and above all for devolved powers over property taxes. London needs to be able to adjust council tax to reflect house prices in the capital, just as northern cities cannot rely on business rates to support services when rents are falling. Formulas for redistributing tax revenues between richer and poorer parts of the country will always be needed, but these should be against a backdrop of local autonomy and innovation, not the sole focus of debate.
To many in Manchester, devolution is indispensable as the country seeks a course out of the Brexit morass, and a way to remedy the sense of betrayal that many people feel. How can civil servants and ministers in London know better than local politicians and communities how to spark growth and deliver better lives for people in a thousand different towns and cities? But if devolution is to be comprehensive and lasting, getting there may be a rocky and sometimes difficult journey.