Devolution after Brexit: 3 things that need to change

In this post, originally published on the New Economics Foundation’s blog, Adrian Bua argues that devolution should deliver a genuinely more equal, decentralised and balanced political economy in the UK following the Brexit vote.

Brexit has cast doubt over much of UK economic policy – including the Treasury’s pledged support for a ‘devolution revolution’.

Many areas that voted in favour of Brexit were those left behind by a decline in British industry since the late 1970s and those suffering the most from government spending cuts.

They’re the areas that need effective devolution the most, but they’re also the areas standing to lose the most from a Brexit.

Uncertainty has already hit the manufacturing sector with Siemensdeciding to halt investment in Hull, and it won’t be the last case of its kind. Decisions like this will affect poorer regions disproportionately as their industry is generally more dependent on EU demand.

Moreover, these regions have also benefitted the most from EU regional development funding – and therefore stand to lose the most as these funds are discontinued, especially if the British state decides not to compensate the losses.

All this means that poorer regions will suffer from short term disruption and uncertainty, but it does not mean that such regions won’t benefit from Brexit in the long term. For example, supporters of Brexit such as James Wharton, the Minister for local growth and the Northern Powerhouse, say northern businesses now have a huge opportunity to “go global”.

We are concerned however, that rather than leading to a more balanced economy, Brexit risks turning Britain into a full-on ‘hedge-fund economy’ that works for already global finance firms and the City of London.

It’s therefore even more important that the government changes its currently-flawed approach to devolution in the following ways:

1. An industrial strategy for the whole of the UK

The Brexit vote was a loud complaint by those left behind by what Colin Hay has called the ‘Anglo-Liberal’ growth model based on London’s financial services, spending fuelled by private credit and housing price bubbles. This also brought with it the decimation of our public and social services.

We need a new industrial strategy and a plan for regeneration that will boost the incomes and opportunities of these alienated communities that have been left behind.

2. More power to the people

The above, which would include some redistribution of wealth, needs to be accompanied by the redistribution of power.

As Tony Hockley argues, more money and investment can’t reverse the cultural elements of inequality, highlighted brilliantly by Lisa McKenzie’s work on the stigmatisation of working class neighbourhoods in Nottingham, for example.

To tackle this appropriately, as well as offering opportunities for excluded communities to benefit from growth, we need to enable such communities to take an active role in our society and economy. Approaches to ‘Community Economic Development’ such as that being carried out in Preston in their experiment with co-operative industry, have much potential in this respect.

By combining economic development, with the empowerment of citizens, communities can become ‘development makers’, rather than ‘development takers’.

Devolved areas should also engage citizens in forms of participatory public administration, by implementing meaningful and genuine forms co-production in public services, and developing more ambitious approaches to participatory budgeting to give genuine control to people over public investment in their areas.

3. More democratic politics

Our politics also needs to be more responsive to people and the decentralisation of political power needs to occur in political parties and through the electoral system.

Decay in these key democratic institutions is part of what Colin Crouch terms ‘post-democracy’, a condition which I argue elsewhere underpinned many of the pathologies surrounding the EU referendum.

All political parties need a bottom up reinvention based on greater democracy.

How do we do this?

Current attempts by the Labour party to rediscover its roots in social movements are welcome, as are remarks by incoming Prime Minister and Conservative leader Theresa May about a country that works for everyone.

A more proportional electoral system that allowed for a greater plurality of political parties, that could experiment with different organisational models and offer a greater variety of policy platforms without engaging in distracting internal struggles would also be welcome.

Adrian Bua is researcher at the New Economics Foundation and at the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity

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