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Queen’s Speech: nothing for devolution, but is it the moment for city leaders?

Queen’s Speech: nothing for devolution, but is it the moment for city leaders?

🕔21.Jun 2017

Brexit. Brexit. Brexit, as Tony Blair wouldn’t have said. As expected, this Government’s focus – for however long it lasts – will be dominated by withdrawal from the European Union with no time for devolution. Is this the moment for city (and regional) leaders to step forward? Kevin Johnson explores.

A raft of Brexit measures inevitably dominated this morning’s Queen’s Speech. Following a less than successful General Election – at least in terms of establishing a ‘strong and stable’ Commons majority to support the Prime Minister’s ‘Plan for Britain’ – it’s hardly surprising that the legislative agenda announced for the next two years does not fully reflect the Conservative manifesto.

No room for fox hunting, grammar schools or a dementia tax.

The Queen’s Speech does propose legislation for automated and electric vehicles and commercial spaceflight as well as measures to enable the next phase of HS2 from Birmingham to Crewe.

However, devolutionary measures do not feature in the Government’s programme.

Her Majesty did mention “a new modern, industrial strategy” but this will only require White Paper rather Parliamentary Bill form.

There was no mention of reforms to the way local government will be financed through 100% business rates retention. The Department for Communities and Local Government has briefed that rates retention has effectively been indefinitely suspended, according to the Local Government Chronicle.

A Local Government Finance Bill fell at the end of the last Parliament as a result of the snap General Election.

In their manifesto, the Tories committed to supporting local growth through combined authorities, directly elected mayors and local enterprise partnerships. They were to be put in charge of co-ordinating their own local industrial policy “in alignment with our national industrial strategy.”

The manifesto also mentioned placing LEPs on a statutory footing. As part of its electoral reforms, the Conservatives proposed changing Metro Mayors votes to the first-past-the-post system.

Overall, the manifesto’s devolution theme was one of consolidating recent gains rather than driving forward an ambitious new phase.

So, where does this leave the devolution cause and those who occupy those roles and organisations brought about in the last two parliaments?

It would probably be fair to say that there are some questions about the quality and performance of the nation’s leaders right now. Is it time to turn to city leaders, or are these new creatures of devolution constrained by limited powers, their own local difficulties and the apparent lack of future development?

Theresa May’s world has turned upside down in the last few weeks, even though she still resides at Number 10, while her reaction to last week’s tragedy in North Kensington was slow footed.

By contrast, the responses of Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and London Mayor Sadiq Khan to tragedies in their areas have been impressive.

Recent events as well as the prospect of Brexit are certainly having an effect on confidence as well as investment and decision making, as Rebecca Riley of the University of Birmingham’s City-REDI highlighted in a recent post.

A recent blog by the World Economic Forum has highlighted that in many places the nation state is looking outdated, and even dangerous. Where power is too centralised and focussed on national interests, policy is disengaged from the local, from the day to day lives of people and businesses.

The populist movement we are seeing globally is a reaction to this; dissatisfaction with the way countries are governed creates turbulence in the current way of thinking and doing, and challenges political structures. Shifting of decision making to a more local level eases tensions as people see change locally and impact can be seen quicker.

Cities are therefore emerging as key leadership nodes, galvanising action and responding to local need. Focussing on regional economic growth and giving powers and funding to local delivery structures to improve growth can help alleviate the social and political tensions that have led us down this unfortunate path to instability.

City regions and states are finding their feet against turbulent national structures and the West Midlands need to be ready to seize this. The latest example of this stance can be seen in Hawaii which has legally committed to supporting the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, going against their national policy from President Trump.

Internationally mayors provide a strong focus for places, driving investment and promoting a good image that increases business and individual investment despite external change.

There is an opportunity within the instability for Mayors to steal a march and ask for more powers leaving national government to deal with national issues, showing clear leadership in policy and strategy development is key to the region weathering the storm. The lack of clarity and consistency at national level provides not just an opportunity, but an imperative, for regional governance structures to step up their game.

Andrew Carter, Chief Executive of the Centre for Cities think tank, says “now is the time for local leaders, and in particular the new metro mayors, to step up and spur the next wave of innovation and enterprise that will drive the UK’s economy in the post Brexit world.”

It is likely that over the next five years, delivering any improvements or change on many of the issues that determine our country’s future prosperity and shared growth: the competitiveness of our businesses; the education of our children; the efficiency of our infrastructure; the availability of affordable housing; the quality of our public spaces; and the skills of our workers; Westminster will be only a junior partner.

This situation presents a unique opportunity for local leaders across the country to step up to the plate and drive our country forward. First amongst equals in the local leadership space should be the new metro mayors, who alongside the Mayor of London, should build coalitions that encompass city, suburbs and rural areas and that bridge the political divisions that plague our national politics.

…mayors will also need to set out what extra powers and funding they require from government, and be ready to call them out when political paralysis or civil servant obfuscation undermines their ability to make the investment and policy decisions to grow their economies.

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