English devolution has been on the Conservative Government agenda with varying degrees of salience since 2014. During this time, ‘devo deals’ have also been linked with other grand narratives, spanning from the Northern Powerhouse to the more recent ‘levelling up’ agenda. Along the way, promises were made to ‘do devolution properly’ and deliver a clear framework – but these have failed to materialise.
Until now, devolution has developed in fits and starts, leaving devo deals to resemble a patchwork of ad hoc fixes that do not cover the whole country and vary considerably in terms of power and resources.
Six years on, devolution remains essentially an ‘unfinished’, disconnected project that benefits some areas but excludes others, and still fails to deliver any form of real empowerment to all localities. By exposing the dangers of Westminster centralism, the COVID-19 crisis has thrown into even sharper relief the need to address this issue and roll out a coherent programme of devolution in England. That’s why the White Paper on devolution and local recovery expected this month was both urgent and necessary.
And yet, as recent events suggest, despite rhetoric Westminster seems determined to keep a strong hold on sub-national governance and rein resources back in at the centre. The resignation of the secretary of state Simon Clarke in early September was the first warning sign that support for devolution had started waning.
In a matter of weeks, devolution has once again slipped off the agenda – with the White Paper now postponed to 2021.
In this way, the Government is withdrawing support to local authorities at the time when they need it the most. This is a political decision that will have long term, negative effects on our already strained system of governance.
With no end in sight for the COVID-19 crisis, existing inequalities across the country will continue to widen. By postponing plans for devolution, metro mayors and local leaders will simply not have access to the means needed to tackle this. Without a roadmap for devolution there will be no levelling up – and it would be foolish to believe otherwise. Shelving the White Paper will foster new inequalities and competition between devo deals ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Cementing devolution in the political and public imagery as a policy bound to create ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ will prevent it from achieving either their economic or democratic aims.
Brexit is now also looming, with the prospect of bringing in further uncertainties that will have severe knock-on effects on local government. A devolution framework would have helped with ensuring that control would not just be ‘taken back’ by Westminster, but also passed down to combined authorities, mayors and councils. Kicking the White Paper into the long grass means that there’s now a real risk that even further (re)centralisation could be on the cards.
Worn by a decade of austerity and now dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, councils and combined authorities also urgently need financial stability. The White Paper promised to deliver this – but for many areas, waiting until 2021 might simply be too late. The continuous delay of a devolution settlement for England shows that the centre has little respect for local leaders and any promise made by the Government can vanish overnight – irrespective of the consequences this might bare for local authorities.
Councils will be left to navigate the difficult path towards recovery and the new world of Brexit without any clear direction of travel – relying for the most part on their own, shrinking means.
While there is no doubt that local government can muster resilience, without the reassurance of more power and resources we’re now left wondering if it will manage to weather the new storms that are looming on the horizon.
The prospect of a White Paper brought in hope for a recovery plan able to harness the knowledge and ingenuity of local leaders, who know the needs of their communities better than a remote Government in London. In time the plan got increasingly muddled – turning into an attempt to hijack devolution to reform local government into unitaries. But devolution and local government reorganisation are not the same thing and conflating them was a big mistake. As political interests and frictions emerged, goalposts shifted and the final objective of ‘putting an empowered local government at the heart of recovery’ got lost along the way.
This is a huge missed opportunity. A devolution settlement for England is urgent – but for now, in all likelihood, we will get only more short-term fixes that will do little in the way of delivering the radical change needed to ‘build back better’.
Dr Arianna Giovannini is deputy director of the Local Governance Research Centre (LGRC) and associate professor/reader in local politics and public policy at De Montfort University