The devolution deception

This article was first published by The Planner, the magazine of the RTPI.

England’s core cities welcome the opportunity to take charge of their own affairs. But the government’s proposals for devolution may not be all that they seem, argues Policy Press author Robin Hambleton 

HambletonThe government has attempted to portray the devolution proposals for governance change in cities like Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield as a bold step towards the decentralisation of power in England. But are these so-called ‘devo deals’ all that they seem?

Until November 2014, prime minister Margaret Thatcher stood tall as the unrivalled centraliser of power in British politics. Her Rates Act of 1984 enabled the central state to decide, over the heads of local voters, how much councils would be allowed to tax individuals and businesses. In countries that value the importance of local democracy in society, such a centralising step is regarded as incomprehensible.

However, with a speech on 3 November 2014, Manchester to get directly elected Mayor, chancellor George Osborne set out an ambition to introduce into England an era of centralisation on steroids, one that goes well beyond the Thatcherite command-and-control state of the 1980s.

“So startling is the nature of current central government policy towards local government that I suggest we need a new word to encapsulate it”

Osborne’s Autumn Statement, presented to Parliament on 3 December 2014, confirmed his bid to finish off the idea that locally elected democratic institutions should be accountable to the people who elected them. Rather these elected local authorities are to be told by the central state to decimate local public services in the name of austerity.

So startling is the nature of current central government policy towards local government that I suggest we need a new word to encapsulate it.

To ‘Osbornify’ public policy involves introducing extreme measures to boost the power of the central state while all the time pretending that power is being decentralised. It takes political spin to a new level of deception.

Osborne said, in his November announcement, that his proposals to create a directly elected mayor for the Manchester conurbation, with powers over transport, housing, planning and policing, would “give Mancunians a powerful voice and bring practical improvements for local people”. Not all bad, you might say.

But he went on to state: “I want to talk to other cities who are keen to follow Manchester’s lead – every city is different and no model of local power will be the same’.

Think about it. The Osborne proposals involve Whitehall taking three massive steps to centralise power.

First, who is going to decide which areas of the country are to have these new governance arrangements? Ministers. Second, who will decide the criteria for devolving power to these lucky localities? Ministers. Third, who will be crawling over the detailed proposals individual cities have for urban development and socio-economic innovation? Yep, ministers.

This is classic divide and rule tactics. Cities around England understand this well enough. However, at this point in time, they have few options. The solidarity of local government is a casualty as localities vie for the bespoke attention of central government.

In preparing a new book, Leading the Inclusive City: Place-based innovation for a bounded planet, I have been fortunate to work with a number of innovative cities in other parts of the world. I present 17 stories of bold civic leadership, drawn from 14 countries, to show how powerful elected local authorities are advancing social justice, promoting care for the environment, boosting local economies and strengthening community empowerment.

In many of these places, civic leaders are creating more inclusive cities by promoting civic pride, social innovation and place-based creativity. English local authorities can do the same, but not if Osborne is allowed to suffocate local democracy.

Robin Hambleton is professor of city leadership, Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments at the University of the West of England, Bristol. We are grateful to The Planner, the magazine of the RTPI, for allowing us to re-produce this article. An abridged version will appear in the February edition of the magazine.

Robin Hambleton’s book, Leading the inclusive city: Place-based innovation for a bounded planet is available to buy at 20% discount from the Policy Press website.

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