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Election Ahead – must be time for devolution deluge

Election Ahead – must be time for devolution deluge

🕔12.Mar 2014

Chief Blogger Paul Dale has been pouring through speeches and pamphlets to see what the parties and think tanks are saying about devolution as we approach next years general election. In this brief introduction, Dale begins to assess the drivers for devolution talk and whether weve simply heard it all before

With just over a year to go before the 2015 General Election, politicians are beginning to hold a conversation about devolving power from Government and civil service to councils and communities.

A cynic might remark, well they would say that wouldn’t they. After all, there’s scarcely been a General Election campaign in the past 40 years in which the main parties haven’t set out their stall on devolving power, only to do precious little about it once in office – with the exception, of course, of establishing the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, which merely drew attention to the lack of devolution in London-dominated England.

The coalition government has moved slowly towards relinquishing tiny morsels of control by establishing City Deals and the Local Growth Fund through Local Enterprise Partnerships, as well as encouraging councils to create Combined Authorities where they are able to establish transport authorities and take responsibility for regional economic regeneration.

Meanwhile, the largest English cities including Birmingham are involved with the City Growth Commission which is investigating how decentralisation of government and economic development could allow policy and investment to be more sensitive to local economies and communities.

According to the commission’s Metro Growth document, this would involve “a transformation of Whitehall, Westminster, local government and the range of associated organisations, including LEPs, public service providers, universities and civil society organisations”.

The latest bout of decentralisation talk may be different in that it is driven by a growing understanding that tough public spending cuts make the current top-down system of administering local government unworkable.

Birmingham City Council, for example, expects to lose two-thirds of its controllable budget from 2010-11to 2017-18, some £822 million, as a result of cuts in Government grant. The council’s local revenue-raising powers, through the council tax, contribute only 10 per cent of total spending.

Even in the post-austerity age, if it ever arrives, the public sector will be a shadow of its former self. Councils are moving rapidly to farm out control of non-statutory services like community libraries, sports centres, swimming pools, parks and museums to a combination of local volunteers and arms-lengths co-operatives. The ‘we know best’ approach from Whitehall no longer makes sense in this new landscape of active citizens.

There is another driver behind the move to devolve. It is clearer than ever that the political process in this country is badly damaged. More and more people – particularly younger people – are disengaged, feel powerless to influence the decisions of government and local councils, and regard voting at elections as a waste of time.

In an extended post here on the Files later today, Paul Dale looks at what the Labour Party and those around it are saying about localism and power. 

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