Councils could be forgiven for wondering if Government remains as committed to devolution and decentralisation of power, post Brexit, as it appeared to be before June’s vote.
What started well and seemed to have support at the highest level of Government, with George Osborne’s zealot like enthusiasm, doesn’t appear to have the same prominence with new cabinet figures, indeed some fear that the agenda could simply fizzle out.
It would be a major policy U-turn to cancel next year’s mayoral elections for the big three combined authority areas of Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and the West Midlands, however it doesn’t appear that many other deals are close to completion with almost daily stories of negotiations collapsing.
Whilst some find the idea of having an elected mayor forced upon them objectionable, others have concerns over whether you are really going to get what you signed up for in terms of funding for projects or powers, given the economic uncertainty that exists post Brexit.
Given the financial crisis local services face, decentralisation is exactly what is needed. It’s clear the public feel that they are not getting their fair share of resources. APSE’s recent opinion poll, with Survation, found 77% of the public want more of their taxes spent locally, rather than elsewhere.
There now appears to be a consensus amongst Government that the UK needs a new industrial strategy with national infrastructure projects at the heart of it. However, what is really needed is for local government to be recognised as the key to driving a localised industrial strategy, and given the powers and funding to deliver it. One that can draw in investment and stimulate local growth, which will have an immediate impact now, rather than in fifteen years time.
Devolution to date has been about individual authorities combining and going to Government asking for funding to undertake initiatives that are ‘unique’ to their area but in reality when you examine many of the Combined Authority Orders there are common themes running throughout. So is it really necessary to painstakingly go through the process of putting these together and then spend months negotiating back and forth with civil servants on the detail? Is it not time for the sector to get together, as a whole, and ask Government for a devolution package around local industrial strategies, including borrowing powers for housing, transport and roads infrastructure, employability and skills development?
In the current climate of uncertainty we may just find a Government that is willing to listen to creative solutions to problems, which they are struggling to find answers for.
Paul O’Brien is Chief Executive of APSE (the Association for Public Service Excellence) and a member of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity