Jessica Studdert is Deputy Director of the New Local Government Network.
George Osborne has invested his personal political capital into devolving power and creating a Northern Powerhouse to rebalance the national economy. How successfully these separate but related agendas are realised will serve as a useful benchmark against which his leadership credentials can be tested ahead of 2020.
Since the election, the Chancellor has set a fast pace. Following a tight schedule for devolution deal bids over the summer, so far four areas in the north – Greater Manchester, Sheffield City Region, the North East and Tees Valley – have agreed to an elected mayor in return for a package of powers. It’s not often that local government finance tops news bulletins, so the bold “devolution revolution” – promising to shift £26 billion worth of business rates to localities – at the heart of the Chancellor’s Conference speech last month demonstrates his intent.
Osborne has a different vision for local government than we have known from governments over recent decades. His is inspired by the days of Joseph Chamberlain, when cities were entrepreneurial, business-led engines of growth.
Driving an urban economic renaissance in this way is also a political masterstroke for the Conservative master strategist. It is designed to position the Conservatives as the party of growth in the North. The Northern Powerhouse has opened up a geographical flank against the Labour Party in a space they had apparently not even realised existed. His open offer of devolution deals has pitted a sceptical Labour leadership against their own council leaders, who are pragmatically keen to deliver for their areas. His economic and political strategy has the potential to open up metropolitan doors long locked for the Conservatives.
Or so goes the theory. Recent polling from NLGN, PwC and Ipsos Mori reveals that it might not be that simple. The results show that while the public are four times as likely to trust local government as they are national government, three quarters say they know little or nothing about plans to transfer decision-making from Whitehall to local areas. Of those living in the 38 areas that are seeking to agree devolution deals bids only one in five people know ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ about the proposals.
In relation to the Northern Powerhouse in particular, while those living in the region are more likely to have heard of the concept (59 per cent as opposed to 40 per cent elsewhere), only a quarter of those living in the North are optimistic that it can achieve its aims.
This disconnect between the aims of devolution and Northern Powerhouse agendas, and their perception amongst the very people the projects are supposed to reconnect with, should matter to Osborne. If the Conservatives can’t do a better job of selling the merits of devolution and an empowered North to the general public, it won’t be the powerhouse promised. For Osborne personally, his reputation hangs not just on the success of these projects, but on his ownership of them.
It may be that the tight timetable of the devo-deals process, with the Government conducting negotiations behind closed doors and at pace within the Spending Review ‘window of opportunity’ before the end of November, has left the public feeling shut out of the discussion on devolution. And perhaps some bad news stories such as the temporary pause on the electrification of the TransPennine railway and the steel industry crisis knocked confidence in the promise of the Northern future.
Either way, it seems clear that for devolution of power and the Northern Powerhouse to reach their full potential they need to become more firmly embedded in the public’s consciousness. The fast pace of events since the election needs to now allow more time for people living in the areas to become more engaged with what is happening.
The devolution agenda is being driven by Osborne from the centre for now, but to become an actual revolution it will need to break out of the corridors of Whitehall and into the very communities that stand to benefit.