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Devolution: time to think the unconventional

Devolution: time to think the unconventional

🕔26.Sep 2014

The impact of the Scottish Referendum campaign and a bulging shelf of policy reports offer the chance for real devolution, writes Kevin Johnson.

The city is notching up new records in inward investment and private sector jobs growth. HS2 is on its way along with major transport improvements further underlining connectivity as one of our greatest strengths. From JLR and the advanced manufacturing sector to fast growing business and professional services; the sheer quality and vibrancy of our cultural offer to the innovative spirit of the digital scene, Birmingham has no shortage of assets. Economic, transport and retail strategies all point to an ambitious city investing in the future.

However, the strategic challenges facing Birmingham are enormous. A council confronting substantial reductions in budget, and therefore staff, needs to dramatically reform what it does, how it works and the way in which it behaves. It is subject to a plethora of reviews, including those analysing its governance and devolving more power to districts, as well as Government appointed commissioners overseeing education and social services. From Polly Toynbee to Fraser Nelson, too many commentators place Birmingham in the governance version of an intensive care unit.

Frankly, other cities and regions are ahead of us in terms of leadership models and making the case to central government that they can be trusted to exercise power and spend money more wisely. Combined authorities – which can be set up by two or more councils and allow members to pool responsibility and funding on transport and economic development – is one example where Greater Manchester, followed by others, has taken the jump and is already benefitting.

I’ve heard enough of  Northern Ways, Powerhouses and Futures. Good luck to our friends in the north, but it’s time Greater Birmingham had its own, distinctive agenda supported by democratic political structures which possess real powers.

The job of working out how we want this city and city region to work cannot be left to the Council or the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) with an off-the-shelf consultation process. They and others need to be heavily involved, but the wider community needs to make its voice heard – both on how we make our local institutions fit for purpose as well as telling Whitehall and Westminster exactly what powers we want back.

We have been here before. In recent years, some hoped an elected mayor would reset the way this city is governed with decentralised and strong leadership. The ‘Heseltine Project’ also attracted a high degree of excitement. The good people of Birmingham were underwhelmed by an ill-defined role and the thought of yet more politicians. Hezza produced excellent reports, but HM Treasury inevitably diluted the ambition.

Nationally, scandals involving almost every major national institution – parliament, banks, NHS, Police, BBC and newspapers – have been met with outrage, but little has fundamentally changed in the way we are governed.

So, why should the head of devolution steam generated in Scotland and among English policy wonks be any different? David Cameron’s attempt to link devolution questions north and south of the border and backbench demands for an English Parliament will do nothing to re-balance the economy or increase political engagement outside London. I would argue the momentum and the evidence base are almost irresistible.

There are signs that leaders across Birmingham and the Black Country are working closer together with some of the aged animosity, personal and parochial, diminishing. On inward investment and transport, for example, joint working is impressive. But the city region needs to take the next step – and that probably means in the shape of a Combined Authority and, whisper it, a single LEP. Without either, we are not going to be taken seriously and, more importantly, we will underachieve in investment, growth and jobs.

ThinkBirmingham is calling for contributions to this debate – not just from politicians and officers – and seeking to give voice to how we want to organise ourselves and what we want devolved, not licenced, from Westminster and Whitehall.

We will do that through the ThinkCities online platform, a dedicated local site to launch soon as well as social media. Working with partners, we will hold events to debate the issues and exchange ideas starting with Empowering Cities: How Greater Financial Powers for Cities will Benefit the UK being staged by the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce and hosted by Squires Patton Boggs next Monday (29th September 2014). We want to build a proposition to share with political parties in order to help shape what their manifestos say and the next Parliament delivers.

Ukip, Labour and the Greens are arguing for a national constitutional convention to resolve devolution questions. Greater Birmingham needs its own convention, but in a way that befits our area, the character of the place and appeals beyond constitutional experts. Something innovative and enlightened; that embraces our technological strengths; that engages our young and diverse populations as well as the usual suspects. Perhaps a Constitutional Unconvention?

Kevin Johnson is ‘city lead’ for ThinkBirmingham, the campaign backed by the Centre for Cities. He is Editor of the Chamberlain Files and Partner at its publisher, RJF Public Affairs.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Birmingham Post on 25th September 2014. 

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