When George Osborne announced that he intended to pursue some devolution initiatives – headlined by the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ branding – to support economic regeneration outside London and the south-east, I gave the proposals by broad backing.
I have been a consistent supporter of devolution. The Labour government got its fingers burned in a referendum on regional government. Instead, we saw the government beef up its own regional offices and initiate regional development agencies (RDAs). Then, Conservatives, led by Eric Pickles, in the coalition government were so opposed to regional devolution that, in a fit of pique, they not only scrapped the RDAs but also the government’s own regional infrastructure. Madness.
But, back to today. There are worrying signs that Mrs May’s new government is backtracking over giving areas more control of their own affairs.
Last year, councils in South Yorkshire (involving others in north Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire) agreed a draft devolution deal with George Osborne. There was always a problem about the government’s then insistence on a city-region mayor. More recently, the government changed its mind to remove the mayoral condition for other deals, but there are concerns that any attempt to reopen discussions will be used as an excuse to scrap the deal and that talks with areas yet to reach an agreement will just stall.
Whilst all this behind-the-scenes discussion and shilly-shallying is taking place, I have a big concern that local people have felt completely excluded from the devolution negotiations and deals. My constituents tell me that most people don’t know what on earth has gone on, what has been agreed, what was asked for, what was rejected. There is a real danger that people will feel totally alienated by both the process and the outcomes.
Now we need:
- the government to commit to more and deeper devolution – including fiscal powers – not less;
- the government and councils to increase transparency about and engagement with local people about the devolution discussions and arrangements; and
- detailed discussion about the way in which there can be proper local scrutiny of the policies and decisions of the exercise of the devolved powers.
We need to be going forward, not backward.