Power to the people?

Duncan Bowie asks what power and what people in a discussion of devolution, spatial equity and socialism

Many political activists including local elected politicians are becoming increasingly enthusiastic about devolution.   The failures of central government have generated an understandable perspective that surely we locally could do governance much better than the bureaucrats in Whitehall, or for that matter the politicians in the ‘Westminster bubble’. Both the London Mayor and the city Mayors of the northern cities and conglomerations are arguing for more Westminster powers to be devolved. This goes beyond the northern powerhouse lobby led by Andy Burnham and Dan Jarvis, both former MPs who are now city Mayors of Greater Manchester and the Sheffield city region respectively, or other prominent local leaders such as the impressive Judith Blake of Leeds, Nick Forbes of Newcastle and Marvin Rees of Bristol.

The UK2070 Commission on rebalancing the UK economy, led by Lord Kerslake, is also pushing further devolution. This article is prompted partly by a questionnaire circulated on behalf of the Commission by DevoConnect – a devolution consultancy set up by Gill Morris, who previously worked with Nick Raynsford (the former Labour housing and planning minister) – which appeared to presume that all devolution was good and the main question was how quick we devolve rather than what powers are devolved and to whom. Further, Paul Salveson’s regular Chartist Points & Crossings column promotes regionalism and advocates regional political parties, outside the existing party political structure.

The case for devolution goes down well after a decade of central government-imposed austerity and the diversion of three years wasted arguing about Brexit. The Tories also managed to gain some limited popularity with their advocacy of bringing planning nearer to the people through the introduction of a neighbourhood planning system in the 2011 Localism Act. However, as socialists, surely we need to discuss who benefits from different forms of devolution and what powers should be devolved to what level of governance – the old issue of subsidiarity. In this context I am focusing on devolution within England and not whether there should be further devolution to the nations on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Much of the debate over devolution in England is confused, with little distinction between devolving powers from central government to regional bodies (elected or otherwise); to new sub-regional groupings, such as city region Mayors or combined authorities; to reinvigorated County Councils (so far as they still exist); to local districts, parish councils, neighbourhood councils or even smaller area organisations which have been established through the neighbourhood planning process. There are also countervailing pressures – for larger local councils (with some authorities already running combined services) or for powers to be transferred from local district to county councils or to regional bodies such as the Mayor of London.

Where access to services varies between different areas, we often hear the term ‘postcode lottery’. It is of course not a lottery at all but a result of varying access to resources to provide services in different areas and varying priorities, often as a result of local political decisions. Where we have national standards, whether it be waiting times for operations or sizes of primary school classes, these are not enforced consistently. Often the failure to meet a target results in financial penalties rather than the provision of resources needed to deliver the target.

The more local areas have to rely on local resources and local political decisions, the greater the geographical variation between service standards. This is what is meant by ‘spatial inequity’. The concepts of local self-sufficiency and local autonomy have consequences.

There is a separate question as to the appropriate level for decision making for different services. Clearly decisions about major infrastructure projects such as HS2 or a new airport need to betaken at a national government level, whereas a decision about where to site a new park bench could be taken at a very local level.

However, other services may require decisions at a range of levels – take flood mitigation for example. This requires national policy and standards, which can identify areas of potential flood risk and provide the resources for flood prevention and mitigation from a national budget. While neighbourhoods can have flood wardens and district councils, county councils and emergency services can have resources for emergency intervention which can be accessed quickly and need to be based within easy reach of the flooded area. Local councils also need plans to ensure that residential and other developments within a flood risk area are only constructed with full mitigation measures built into the development (if we are to build in the flood plain at all).

So, either neighbourhood government or central government working on its own will fail. To take another issue – affordable housing. Central government needs a policy and investment framework with a plan that identifies which areas of the country have the most acute shortfall of affordable housing and which of these areas cannot fund the meeting of these needs from local resources. District councils need to allocate sites (often overriding local objections), but an inter-authority agreement through a sub-regional plan is required where a local authority does not have developable land within its area to meet the outstanding housing need.

So the issue of devolving powers is not a simple one. Central governments have been quite enthusiastic about devolving responsibilities without devolving resources, or increasing the ability of local authorities or other sub-national bodies to raise additional resources. Central government can then blame local councils and local politicians for service failures. Meanwhile local politicians will blame central government for not providing sufficient resources (even where they could raise more resources locally but have chosen not to). As the blame game continues, residents blame all politicians, local, national, or as in recent years, the ‘unelected bureaucrats of the EU’, even though of all levels of government it is generally the EU that has least to do with service failures in the UK.

National government has some responsibility for ensuring that all residents of the UK have access to a good quality of essential services, irrespective of where they live. This means that we need to use the resources of better off areas to help those in the poorer areas. This is not just an issue of London and the South East against the North, as it is often presented, but also an issue of inequities within a city like London – or Birmingham or Manchester or Glasgow. This should be an important issue for socialists. It is after all why we campaign for a socialist administration not just at local council level but at national level. So when we hear of the devolution case and bringing power to the people, we need to think: ’what power? what people?’, and ask who will actually benefit and who will lose out.

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