Five years ago the coalition Government made a commitment to decentralisation and to moving powers away from Whitehall and towards local government – and other local structures.
At the time I tried to lay out a series of qualifying factors which I felt would be crucial to making the process a success – lacking any other unifying theme I called these the four Cs of decentralisation – capacity, confidence, cash and consent. With Greg Clark MP taking over from Eric Pickles and looking keen to truly ignite the devolution agenda it seemed like a good time to review those themes, adjust the discussion for five years of political debate, and see what they might mean for colleagues in the Greater Manchester region and beyond.
In discussing capacity, I argued that local authorities needed to skill up to be able to take on a wider role, both at an officer level and member. I felt, and I still do, that the ability of often small local authorities to have the depth of experience skill and capacity to take on additional roles and functions is limited – especially at this time of severe cuts. In many ways this is being addressed by the formation of wider groups of local authorities, be they from Greater Manchester, the county of Cambridgeshire or beyond. Perhaps this is reflective of the Government recognising this capacity issue or perhaps this is more of a coincidence. Either way, I think that local government needs to take this capacity issue seriously.
I pitched the idea of confidence mattering mainly because I felt that there was a general lack of forward thinking confidence in the sector – after twenty years of performance indicators and central controls the ability to think for ourselves was perhaps lacking. I think this has improved over the last five years but the Government have also played their part by making sure that only those councils, and groups of councils, who really wanted it have been granted the opportunity to sign these deals with the treasury.
I think this is probably right. Just because I believe in the devolution agenda being the right one in the long term does not mean that I support the idea of passing over powers to councils, or regions, that have made no indication that they want them or that they have any idea what to do with them. Yes, this will lead to an unbalanced policy position but I think pragmatism is more important at this stage. However, my hope is that as regions show what they can do with the new powers it gives others the confidence to want more.
When I wrote my piece in 2010 I had no idea of the scale of cuts that were to come for the sector. However, in many ways local government’s success in meeting the cuts agenda whilst Whitehall has floundered has one positive; it has shown that local government has a level of competence when it comes to managing budgets that is not matched in the other parts of the public sector. As friend of the blog Jonathan Flowers has commented local government is in a position to say to the Government ‘if you pass us the axe we can make the cuts, as long as we then get to keep the handle’.
Although I recognise that the cash I thought might be passed to local government is not coming it is clear that any programme of real devolution needs to be accompanied by real cash – and that any money passed across has the potential to provide resilience and depth to strained local budgets. It’s not perfect but the Manchester agreement shows that the Government recognises that devolution needs to be accompanied by cold hard cash. More will have to be offered, and Whitehall will have to relinquish more control of it, if any devolution is to have half a chance of being a success –especially whilst the cuts are at the levels they are.
This leaves us with consent – perhaps the most important element of my initial analysis five years ago. At the time I was thinking about the consent needed for community groups, possibly from small sections of a community, to take over running local assets. However, the issue of consent is far deeper than that. If local people don’t feel that they can identify the link between their votes and the decisions made then the legitimacy of the devolved areas is certainly suspect. I think George Osborne has spotted this, hence his demand that areas receiving the new powers, and the money, have elected mayors. I’m not sure this is really enough – titular accountability is fine but with local democracy in relatively poor state of repair (well, all democracy really) I can’t help but feel that more devolution needs to be accompanied by deeper and far more meaningful participatory democracy.
It is not enough to pass power from Central Government to local government if the decisions made by the local councils feel as remote as the decisions currently made. I hope that the consideration of this issue is able to move beyond just that of an elected mayor.
The four Cs seem to have held up fairly well over the past five years and still seem relevant to the decisions being made by Mr Clark and co. However, I think the current devolution deals have identified a crucial fifth C – competence.
In many ways we are still in the experimentation phase – and what happens next is going to matter very much indeed. If places like Manchester (by which I mean the Manchester region of course), Cambridgeshire and West Yorkshire can make a success of the devolution the momentum for change will become unavoidable. However, if they mess it up it won’t take long for the clarion calls of centralisation and the dead hand of the Treasury to demand that devolution is reversed.
I really hope that devolution is a success and that the next five years see rapid progress towards a more local and accountable form of Government and whilst my 5 Cs are fairly crude means of analysis I’ll be keeping my eyes on them over the next few years. I just wonder if I’ll be writing another post on the same issue in five years!