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Devolution is a ‘tower of Babel’ for businesses, warns CBI boss

Devolution is a ‘tower of Babel’ for businesses, warns CBI boss

🕔20.Feb 2015

Britain’s premier bosses organisation the CBI, ever willing to demonstrate that it is up to the pace with modern developments, has taken to quoting the Bible to sound a doom-laden warning about the fast pace of devolution across England.

Director-General John Cridland sought inspiration from the Old Testament, comparing the many growth deals, city deals and community budgets springing up all over the place as a “tower of Babel” for businesses that could come crashing down.

In a speech at an IPPR North event, Mr Cridland went out of his way to warn the next Government not to engage in a dash for devolution because to do so in a disorganised way would risk damaging the UK’s economic growth and undermining the internal market.

The Tower of Babel reference may have taken the audience by surprise. Some might have been mystified about the relevance of said tower to devolving powers and budgets from Whitehall to English cities and regions.

Chamberlain Files’ Religious Affairs Correspondent advises that the Tower of Babel story appears in the Book of Genesis and is meant to explain the difficulty of a community prospering if different languages are spoken and not understood.

It is written that following the Great Flood the peoples of the earth migrated from the east and came to the land of Shinar where they settled and decided to build a city with a tower “whose top is in the heavens”.

The Lord came down to see the city and, having noted that the people all spoke and understood one language, decided to “confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech”.

As a result, building of the city ceased and the people were scattered from Babel over the face of all the earth.

So Mr Cridland’s message appears to be that devolution will collapse unless Government and businesses are speaking the same language.

Although the Director-General insisted the CBI was supportive of devolution he warned that more power to the regions had to go “hand in hand with economic growth” and that “devolution shouldn’t be about being different for its own sake.”

Businesses wanted to see evidence that extra powers would boost growth and jobs while minimising complexity and bureaucracy. Mr Cridland added:

The precedent set for devolution by deadline is a cause for concern.

Any devolution of powers must be done in a careful, considered and transparent manner. And not through rushed backroom deals between politicians and civil servants.

Let’s take time to breathe and – above all – let’s make sure we get this right. The alternative would be uncertainty, complexity and increased costs at the moment we can least afford them.

Further devolution must be built on strong economic foundations. Fundamentally, we want the next Government to ask ‘how does devolution fit into our plans for growth?’ rather than ‘how does growth fit into our plans for devolution?’

Business wants to see evidence that further powers will complement – not constrict – growth, jobs and investment.

Manchester was an obvious example of a combined authority meeting the tests for growth-friendly devolution with strong local leadership, Mr Cridland said. He added:

Putting forward a clear, evidence-based case for how specific powers could unleash Greater Manchester’s potential to drive regional growth.

And for local bodies that want to set out the economic case for enhanced powers, there’s a clear ‘quid pro quo’ here: they must commit to structural reform, taking tough choices on budgets and priorities in a challenging fiscal climate.

Business needs a strong voice in today’s debate on further devolution. “A voice of caution asking politicians to ‘think-twice’ before pressing ahead with decisions with real economic consequences.

A voice asking them to listen to their head – not just their heart – when it comes to devolving powers.

A voice reminding us to think global – making sure that businesses from all UK regions and nations can make their mark in foreign markets.

Business needs greater clarity – both around existing devolution settlements and the potential new powers on offer.

But there’s no doubt that devolution – done properly – can be an opportunity.

Let’s make sure that any devolved powers respect the integrity of our single, internal market, based on a single, United Kingdom.

Let’s make sure that they are rooted in economic evidence, not driven by political expediency.

And let’s make sure that they complement our efforts to create growth and jobs across the UK.

If we do this right – we can make sure that people in all regions and nations see their fair share of the UK’s prosperity.

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