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Sorry, councillors, but you’re confusing devolution with local democracy

Sorry, councillors, but you’re confusing devolution with local democracy

🕔19.Feb 2016

Typical of councillors! Offer them a generous 7½ seconds each to discuss the most radical and controversial change in the region’s governance in a generation – the creation of a West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) with a directly elected mayor – and they want longer writes Chris Game.

In fact, twice as long: 15 seconds each, or a whole indulgent half-hour, in which to do their petty political point-scoring.

No wonder the council’s normally equable chief executive, Mark Rogers, sounded slightly tetchy as he explained to these latter-day Oliver Twists that 15 seconds per member couldn’t possibly be seen as stifling debate – adding (although this bit wasn’t reported) that when Oliver asked for more, the workhouse master had attacked him with a ladle and threatened him with hanging.

Clearly, the councillors had misunderstood their place in the scheme of things. They’ve lost the plot – in all senses.

They’ve heard, endlessly, about Chancellor George Osborne’s ‘Devolution Revolution’ and his ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

They’ve been understandably thrilled at having, or at least sharing with the East Mids, their very own Midlands Tank – sorry, Midlands Engine, “fired up” (honestly, this bit I’m not making up!) to drive £34 billion-worth of productivity and growth.

They’ve followed assiduously the ‘will they, won’t they?’ deliberations of Coventry, Solihull, Coventry, Tamworth, Redditch, Coventry and the rest about whether they’ll join the WMCA and with what status.

They’ve then put 2 and 2 together and come up with something close to 7.

Distracted by all this excitement, they ignored the hardening evidence of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act (CLGDA), and the fact that all serious negotiations seemed to be with not DCLG but Treasury civil servants.

Somehow they confused all this devolution stuff with local democracy. They assumed that, as our locally elected democratic representatives, they’d have some say sometime about the structure and operation of these new institutions.

And now they’ve got that say – their potential 15 seconds of fame – at the March 1 full council meeting, in which, in addition to setting out their own views, they can draw on the less than effusive responses to the WMCA’s public consultation exercise. Yet still they complain – and of course they’re dead right.

But also dead wrong, for that failure fully to grasp what was actually happening. Their role in this exercise of supposedly giving the great cities of England control of their own affairs is little greater than that of us Clancy citizens. Indeed, we were ‘consulted’ first, and given as long as we liked to answer our five questions.

So what has been happening? First, let’s dispense with the ludicrous ‘revolution’ hype, as surely would Osborne himself, had the easy rhyme not proved irresistible.

Anything remotely approaching a revolution would necessarily include a substantial plank of fiscal devolution, would be underpinned by a subsidiarity presumption in favour of devolving functions unless there were compelling reasons not to, and would contain some formula for lastingly rebalancing the relationship between central and local government.

This policy does none of these. So forget revolution; it’s debateable – the Greater Manchester deals apart, and taking account of its covert motives – whether it clears the ‘genuinely radical’ bar.

Osborne’s devolution is a party politically inspired, top-down, Treasury-driven, ministerially managed, lightweight personal ego trip that by the day looks as much concerned with surreptitiously reorganising and unitarising sub-central government as with strengthening and empowering it.

None of which means that what’s on offer isn’t hugely more promising than anything contemplated by previous governments, or that local government shouldn’t make the most of CA devolution deals while the offers stay open. It does mean, though, staying awake and smelling the coffee.

In fairness, even ministers describe the key legislation – the recently passed Cities and Local Government Devolution Act – as an enabling Act. What they don’t emphasise as much is that they’re the ones who decide who is to be enabled to do what, with whom, and under what conditions.

Paul Dale’s summary of the Act, though brief, captured its essence, provided you paid attention to the verbs. Its main purposes are to:
Pave the way for elected mayors to chair CA areas;
Allow the devolution of functions, including transport, health, skills, planning and job support;
Ensure Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) play a leading role in CA governance;
Enable the creation of Sub-national Transport Bodies (STBs) to advise the Government on strategic schemes and investment priorities in their own area.

As Paul noted, that last one is particularly interesting, partly because it was one of several major Government amendments to the original Bill, and partly because, though added chiefly for the benefit of Transport for the North, it will enable the Midlands Connect partnership of local authorities also to be placed on a statutory footing.

Check out those verbs, though. These STBs are bodies enabled by ministers to advise ministers, and whose advice they presumably may or may not take.

Similarly, whose approval is required for the creation of a CA? Who ultimately decides whether a particular permutation of authorities is acceptable, which functions should be devolved, a CA’s form of governance and accountability, whether an elected mayor requires referendum approval, whether a non-mayoral CA is permissible, what constitutes a ‘leading role’ for LEPs?

Ministers, every time – though increasingly it would seem, certainly in the Treasury, their civil servants. Yes, it IS devolution – a form of political decentralisation, but one in which CAs are kept on even tauter strings by their ministerial puppeteers than are local authorities.

Given which, you can see Mark Rogers’ point about a half-hour debate being ample for what’s required. The ‘devolution deal’ already exists – signed without, as it happens, any input from the present council leader, let alone from councillors generally.

Their collective role on March 1 is to seal and deliver it, to take it or leave it, and, as Rogers implied, that takes a less than 15-minute vote. To grit their teeth, forget local democracy, and think DEVOLUTION.

But don’t take my word for it. Oldham’s new MP is the council’s former leader, Jim McMahon. As an architect of the Northern Powerhouse, the jewel in Osborne’s devolution crown, he might have been expected in his recent maiden speech to sing its praises. He didn’t (Jan 19, Col. 1369):

The hallmark of devolution so far has been a Treasury power grab from other ministries. The Chancellor had the opportunity to devolve real financial freedoms, but he chose not to. He is quick to give away the power of his fellow Ministers … [but] not that keen on giving away his own. Without genuinely reforming central government and addressing fair funding, the Northern Powerhouse as a brand is meaningless.

Further evidence of who calls the shots? In the past week alone:

1. East Anglia’s councils were told by Communities Secretary Greg Clark that Norfolk and Suffolk couldn’t have a devolution deal – separately, together, or even with Cambridgeshire. Only a full 3-county, 23-council bid including Peterborough would be even considered, and that preferably with an elected mayor.

2. Hampshire and the Isle of Wight have lost, certainly for the present, their 15-council CA deal, having attempted to tell ministers that a metro-type mayor isn’t the right model for their large, diverse and extensively rural area.

3. Cumbria’s devolution deal also stalled over ministers’ insistence on elected mayors, the county council leader told Local Government Chronicle, after a “very disappointing meeting with the Treasury”.

It’ll come as no consolation to Birmingham councillors, but theirs are far from the only voices not being heard in these devolution deliberations.

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