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.
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.