New possibilities for cities?

In CHARTIST #281, Robin Hambleton draws lessons from abroad for the devolution debate

A radical restructuring of political power in England is underway. Notwithstanding the lofty rhetoric about so-called ‘devolution’, the central state is taking ever more power to itself. This super-centralisation of the state is taking place without adequate public debate, still less thoughtful consideration of the implications for local democracy.

Centralisation on steroids

The proposal to end local council control of England’s schools, made by Chancellor Osborne in his Budget Speech in March, is only one of a growing, number of ‘command and control’ measures the Conservative Government is introducing. The Education and Adoption Act 2016 will not devolve power to trusty head teachers, as ministers claim. Rather the powers will pass to relatively invisible and unaccountable trusts who, by the way, will not need to include parent-governors in their governing arrangements. It is hardly surprising that many sensible Conservative councillors are up in arms. They know that the performance of the vast majority of local authority maintained schools is on the rise, and that the ministerial push to force ‘academisation’ on every school is purely ideological. The centralising features of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 are just as worrying. This misnamed Act offers groups of local authorities – so-called ‘combined authorities’ – the opportunity to put forward proposals for increasing the power of their city region or sub-region. The government claims that this legislation is designed to strengthen local government. Thus, on 14th May 2015, immediately after the General Election, Chancellor Osborne, rushed to Manchester – his constituency is in Trafford on the west side of the conurbation – to make a speech on ‘Building a Northern Powerhouse’. In it he said that ‘… the old model of trying to run everything from the centre of London is broken’ and that he plans to ‘deliver radical devolution to the great cities of England.’ However, critics note that the rhetoric about a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ masks a dramatic centralisation of power. Under the new Act ministers get to pick and choose which localities are to be granted extra powers, ministers decide the criteria to be used in assessing bids, ministers review area-specific proposals on a case-by-case basis and, astonishingly, these so-called devolution deals are being negotiated behind closed doors.

Introducing an international perspective

Locally elected politicians and civic activists in other countries view the super-centralisation of the English state with incomprehension. No other western democracy is pursuing a centralised ‘command and control’ strategy of this kind. They point out, gently of course, that it is, perhaps, not surprising that England is bottom of the European league in voter turnout in local elections. They note, correctly, that the decline in voter turnout in English local government elections mirrors the removal of powers from the local state.

Inclusive City

In international research carried out for a new book, Leading the Inclusive City, I have examined, on a global basis, why some cities and localities are far more inclusive and more successful than others. This research suggests inspirational place-based leadership can make a big difference to the quality of life in any given locality. Central governments have a key role – they can either help or hinder their cities, regions and localities. The international evidence shows that any authentic devolution of power to localities must pass two tests. First, do the elected local authorities have constitutional protection from interference by higher levels of government? Second, do the elected local authorities have a range of substantial tax-raising powers? The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 fails both these fundamental tests. Rather the government appears to want to decentralise blame, nicely ahead of time, for the truly massive spending cuts that the government plans to impose on local government in the next four years.

A progressive way forward

It is wise for local leaders in the UK to look abroad to countries where meaningful devolution is well established. For example, in Germany, Sweden and the USA elected local authorities are entirely free to do things differently. There is no question of the central state imposing specific requirements on particular elected local authorities or telling them how much tax they can raise locally, still less picking off individual groups of local authorities in a centralised deal making process. International experience points to three key lessons for the debate about the future of local governance in England. First, to talk of ‘devolution deals’ is entirely the wrong language. The idea that the agreement of citizens to the way they wish to be governed is to be reduced to a process of secretive ‘devolution deals’ is offensive. Rather ministers should state openly and clearly the principles that they believe should guide the re-negotiation of local/central relations in England. These should be debated, agreed and then be applied in an even handed way to all areas of the country. Second, it is essential that English local government should have constitutional protection from an increasingly autocratic central state. Sir Charles Carter, in his imaginative synthesis of a major programme of research, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, on local/central relations in the UK, showed that UK local authorities, if they are to mean anything, must have the ‘freedom to do things differently’. This fundamental insight must underpin any sound system of elected local democracy. In other countries this freedom enables public innovation to flourish.

Constitutional convention

Third, the evidence presented in my book shows that no other democratic country is pursuing a policy of centralisation on steroids. If England is to prosper we need a constitutional convention – one that takes account of the voices of civil society, local government and the regions, as well as the political parties. In this way we can construct a fair system of local/central relations, one that enjoys wide support and promotes a culture of innovation in local governance.
Reference Carter C. (1996) Members one of another: The problems of local corporate action. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

This article appears the latest issue of CHARTIST. Robin Hambleton is Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol.  His latest book – Leading the Inclusive City – is published by Policy Press

Robin Hambleton
Robin Hambleton is Emeritus Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England, Bristol. His book, Cities and Communities Beyond Covid-19. How local leadership can change our future for the better, is published by Bristol University Press.

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