Andrew Laird is a founder and Director of Mutual Ventures.
A couple of weeks ago, Boris Johnson’s first full policy speech as Prime Minister focused on English devolution. Manchester was a significant choice of venue as it is the area in England (outside of London) which has enjoyed the most devolution of powers.
As the former mayor of London, the new Prime Minister is clearly a big fan of devolving powers to cities and local areas. This is very good news indeed for local public services.
While ministers and Parliament focus on delivering Brexit, local services (e.g. adult social care, children’s services and even the NHS), are looking increasingly like unintended victims. These services need constant care and attention, both through legislative updates and serious policy research and discussion at a national level. But they haven’t been getting any of this.
Over the last couple of years there has been an increasing number of central government actions and decisions being delayed, which has made life more difficult for those delivering local services. This is largely due to ministers and MPs focusing on Brexit and thousands of civil servants being taken away from their normal jobs of supporting public services to work on exit planning.
Regardless of your view on Brexit, this was always going to be an inevitable consequence. The Brexit process has taken up policy-making and decision-making headspace usually spent on other things – things which are essential to smooth running of public services.
As an example, one of the biggest challenges facing the Government is the funding crisis in adult social care. Alongside devolution and infrastructure investment, Johnson has also identified social care as a key priority. The green paper on social care needs to set out a serious long term financial answer – but it has been continually delayed.
There are three Brexit-related issues causing this delay.
The first is creating the time for ministers and the Cabinet to agree to the plan – there hasn’t been much non-Brexit bandwidth at the top of government. This extends way back before the leadership election which itself caused additional ministerial stasis.
The second is that the planned cross-government spending review can’t really take place until our path through Brexit is confirmed. It’s impossible to set out a long term solution to social care without knowing the funding available.
The third is that any serious social care solution will involve tough decisions which will require media space to explain it to the public. Again, there isn’t much non-Brexit media time at the minute. So social care services have been left to struggle on without any long-term funding certainty.
This is already having a much wider impact across public services. Without setting out a long-term funding solution for social care, NHS reforms will struggle to take hold. The NHS and social care are inextricably linked, with service users often bouncing between the two in an unplanned way. So Johnson’s decision to focus on resolving the adult social care crisis is to be welcomed.
Turning back to devolution, distributing funding and decision making to cities and local areas is a big part of the immediate answer to challenges like social care – and also a mechanism to prevent the build-up of issues in the future.
Across the political spectrum, the Prime Minister is largely preaching to the choir on devolution. West Midlands Mayor Andy Street is already showing what can be achieved for a region with devolved authority and has set out his asks from the new Johnson administration on this site. We also have the beginnings of the “Northern Powerhouse”, based around the 11 northern Local Enterprise Partnerships.
Inspired by this, a recent report commissioned by Bristol, Cardiff, and Newport City Councils (‘A Powerhouse for the West‘) is calling for a similar arrangement along the M4 corridor, from Swindon across to Cardiff and Swansea, and from Gloucester and Cheltenham to Bath and Bristol. Grand partnership strategies like this, combined with more localised devolution to cities, councils, and combined authorities, are what is needed.
The drive for devolution has been knocked down the priority list. This was once a really positive agenda item for central government. Giving local areas additional powers was a big step towards empowering local communities, elected mayors, and councillors, and had the added benefit of insulating local services from the process of delivering Brexit.
Johnson has recognised this, and he should move quickly to encourage and support a new wave of devolution deals.