The real deal: negotiating from a position of power

To make devolution a success Westminster must recognise a confident and powerful local government sector as an opportunity, not a threat

Alison GardnerIn what circumstances does the UK government devolve power?  Step back 30 years.  Local government was a bureaucratic and professional behemoth, viewed by the government of the day as an internal enemy.  Cities were a major site of resistance to Conservative policies, with activists choosing local government as a site for work ‘in and against the state’.  1986 saw the abolition of the GLC and Metropolitan County Councils (MCCs), with compulsory competitive tendering and the poll tax lurking just beyond the next general election.

Fast forward to 2016, and the Conservatives are back in power.  Local government has become ‘local governance’, embracing an eclectic and ever-shifting mix of public, private and voluntary sector provision.  The local government workforce is at its lowest level since records began.  Local politicians have, by and large, pragmatically accepted the need to implement unprecedented spending cuts, bound by a straitjacket of powerful political and legal disincentives to resistance.  In this environment, the concept of ‘localism’ has been revived, and sub-regional authorities allowed to return.

The policy opportunity of devolution is indivisible from the wider state of central-local relations.   Negotiations since the inception of Osborne’s ‘devolution revolution’ have occurred in a financial context where Councils metaphorically have both hands tied behind their backs.  Moreover, there is consensus that existing deals have been limited to a narrowly-scoped vision that focusses too heavily on economic benefits and a one-size-fits-all approach to governance.

There is irony then, in recent press reports that devolution has stalled due to the new government’s concern that city-regions could become powerful bases for opposition politics.  But whilst devolution sits temporarily becalmed, local government is using the breathing space to define what the sector as a whole wants and needs from the process.  This is essential to prevent a situation where the sector becomes less than the sum of its parts.

There is no doubt that local services are changing beyond recognition, proving flexible and resilient.  Yet in the process of surviving, local government has sacrificed its corporate identity; there is, as yet, little shared vision of what it should be in a post-austerity context.  Inequalities between localities have exacerbated this problem.  Austerity has been distributed unequally, and the pressure to create combined authorities and the localisation of business rates has enflamed further tensions, setting rural authorities against urban, and reviving deep historic enmities concerning reorganisation.  Whilst this at least shows that local politics is alive and well amidst the hugely technocratic devolution exercise, it bodes ill for developing coherent local policy and lobbying.

The waters have been further muddied by the fact that devolution is a sub-regional policy, not a local one.   Despite the (limited) concessions on business rates and the ‘social care precept’, devolution falls short in addressing the most acute challenges at a local level.  For example, how (for authorities that have not yet made health and social care deals) can it help to address the increasing funding gap in adult social care?  What about sustainable support for arts, culture, and the voluntary and community sector?  There is an implicit assumption in the devolution agenda that ‘all boats will rise’ on a tide of regional prosperity, but this is unproven and may come late for increasingly fragile organisations and services that are meeting the limits of resilience.

Then there is the question of where the benefits of devolution are centred.  Convincing arguments have been made for city-regions as a focus for devolution, but as Ed Cox from IPPR recently pointed out, we need to avoid regional strategies that potentially re-create ‘London in the North’, drawing resources away from neighbouring localities in the quest for competitive advantage.  The UK already has an emerging public policy problem of age segregation.  It will be important not to deepen economic and social divisions further by limiting the potential of devolution to a narrow selection of leading localities.

Linked to this is the crucial issue (also highlighted by other blogs in this series) of who drives devolution.  There has been much hand-wringing post ‘Brexit’ about the disconnection between representative politics and voters who have been ‘left behind’.  A new community-based articulation of participation and engagement in empowered local democracy is needed, but at present devolution only offers distant, indirectly elected structures.

In order to address these issues, local government needs to resist ‘divide and rule’ tactics and  the atomisation of the sector.  Meaningful devolution that benefits the widest range of people is only likely to be negotiated when there is a united and purposeful vision for the future of influential, democratically-accountable local structures.  And there’s the rub, because in the context of central-local relations, central government needs also to recognise a confident and powerful local government sector as an opportunity, rather than a threat.