Jessica Studdert is Deputy Director of the New Local Government Network.
The prospect of “taking back control” motivated many who voted to Leave in the EU Referendum. Whether it was the institutions of Brussels, the policies of the EU or the wider impact of globalisation, a balance of people in our country concluded that the status quo was not working for them – democratically or economically. Unless the relocation of that control is clear and meaningful, there is a risk of deepening alienation and a missed chance to rebalance our national economy.
So far, the opportunity isn’t being grasped. Of course, as negotiations continue, the focus of political and media attention is rightly on the nature of the exit deal with the EU itself. Debate over where powers returned from Brussels should rest has not moved beyond a rather narrow discussion over the EU Repeal Bill, with a zero-sum wrangle between executive and legislative oversight within Parliament. As the clock ticks, the Government needs to craft a credible domestic policy for what happens next. The real challenge will be to disperse both returned and existing powers further across the country so that all people in all areas feel genuinely in control of their futures.
Yet meanwhile, the devolution agenda has stalled. The “devolution revolution” initiated by George Osborne has become more of a “devo drift”. Personnel changes within government have deprioritised it, Whitehall departments have scaled back its ambition and local territorial disputes over governance have undermined its viability. As a result, during the last 18 months, no new devo deals have materialised, no substantive new powers have been devolved and there is deadlock in many areas.
The ad hoc deal-based devolution model was conceived in a pre-EU referendum era, when political and economic calculations were different. Following the vote to Brexit the national context has changed, and certain challenges have risen up the agenda – including a strong sense that too many decisions are made by distant elites and that our economy isn’t working for too many people. A renewed devolution drive could help forge a coherent post-Brexit domestic agenda which reflects people’s pride of place and yearning for more control over things that matter – like getting a good job and getting on in life.
But stark regional inequality is a feature of our country, and our productivity has been low by international standards for some time. National policy interventions have proved incapable to date of overturning these deepening structural problems. Instead of tinkering around the edges with a new funding “pot” or bidding round, we need a real shift to create a system of governance that is closer to people and responsive to needs and opportunities of different areas. And after the UK gains control of national immigration policy after 2019, there is a real imperative to ensure skills systems are linked into labour market needs so that local people can be trained for local jobs that exist.
A renewed devolution drive should be based on clear principles that democratically accountable power is best exercised locally and that multiple strands of policy decision-making need to be properly aligned around the places they affect for maximum impact.
There are signs that the Government is incorporating these principles in its evolving agenda. The prospect of local industrial strategies has been mooted as part of the national Industrial Strategy, which is to be the centrepiece of national domestic economic renewal. There is an opportunity to create local systems of skills, infrastructure investment and public services focussed on the realities of local labour markets, meeting employer needs and removing barriers to people getting into, and on in, work. But there is a risk that channelling growth funding through unaccountable LEPs or creating new skills structures detached from infrastructure decisions will result in new complexity and fail to meet the scale of the challenges.
Using the principle of devolution to create a more decentralised system of governance across the country doesn’t mean the status quo for local government itself. Councils need to transition from traditional twentieth century structures into more agile, responsive institutions capable of dealing with the demands of the twenty-first century. NLGN’s changemaking vision sets out a future for local government focussed on creating impact and capitalising on local identity to enable communities themselves to become more creative, collaborative and self-determining.
Ultimately, a renewed devolution drive would need to involve the concept being seen not as simply a tactical measure, owned by key individuals in government and characterised only by what powers Whitehall departments are prepared to cede. It should be seen more fundamentally as a governing principle that if deployed consistently can address some of the underlying political and economic challenges we face. This would help ensure that after Brexit, our domestic policy agenda genuinely puts people in control of their lives.