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Clark heralds ‘muscular localism,’ Burnham slams ‘gun to the head devolution’

Clark heralds ‘muscular localism,’ Burnham slams ‘gun to the head devolution’

🕔06.Jul 2015

On the day that West Midlands councils launch their combined authority prospectus, Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale reflects on a very different approach to devolution from Labour and the Conservatives.

Communities Secretary Greg Clark and Labour leadership contender Andy Burnham both spoke about devolution when they addressed the Local Government Association conference, but the difference between the two was marked.

Mr Clark, upbeat, talked of born again localism, a nation of “muscular communities”, and painted a highly optimistic picture of a bright future for city regions.

Mr Burnham gloomily railed against elected mayors, doubted whether the Northern Powerhouse would achieve anything and accused the Government of arrogance and offering devolution with a gun to the heads of council leaders.

Grudgingly, Mr Burnham said he fully understood why councils would take what was being offered in the form of devolution, even if the package was “deeply flawed”.

Mr Burnham’s problem, should he become Labour leader, is that the local government landscape will be very different by the time the next General Election is held 2020.

Mr Clark has presented himself as a devolution evangelist and seems determined to prod councils into combined authority status under elected mayors, although a decision to go down that path must come from city regions themselves and not from Government diktat. Not only has the devolution train left the station, it is too far down the track to be derailed.

So despite Labour’s misgivings, by 2020 the country’s largest cities and city regions, including the West Midlands, are likely to be under the control of mayors because this is the only way they will be able to secure the ‘devo-max’ deals they crave.

Greater Manchester’s acceptance of the mayoral model before the 2015 General Election in return for a sweeping devolution deal including some powers over health stunned Labour and, as the Government intended, has acted as a catalyst. Even here in the West Midlands, where opposition to elected mayors is deeply entrenched, council leaders are gradually coming around to accepting the inevitability of the new combined authority having a mayor.

Mr Clark certainly gives the impression of being the most council-friendly Secretary of State for many years, possibly ever.

His message to the LGA was simple. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for councils to grasp the nettle and demonstrate that local decision making is always going to better than a one size fits all Whitehall knows best attitude.

Since no two places are the same – South Holland cannot be confused with Dudley, nor Cornwall with Middlesbrough – it should be obvious that a central plan for everywhere won’t work anywhere.

To have ministers and officials calling the shots from the centre is to miss out on the knowledge, the drive, the connections, the leadership that local government can give.

He even attempted to convince council leaders that the way they had dealt with savage grant cuts imposed by the Government showed great maturity and ingenuity.

You have absorbed some of the biggest cuts that had to be made. That was inevitable, given that local government accounts for 25 per cent of public spending.

What was not inevitable – but no surprise to me – is that you have managed this in a way that has been professional, responsible, creative and effective.

The fact that satisfaction with the services councils provide has increased or maintained over the last five years is an extraordinary reflection of your cool-headed efficiency.

It reinforces my view that central government has more to learn from local government than vice versa, and that view will characterise my approach to working with you all.

On the subject of leadership, Mr Clark had this to say:

The most dynamic cities are led by strong, decisive, visible mayors.

In Chicago, Rahm Emanuel thought it was a better job to be Mayor of that city than to be Chief of Staff to the President of the United States.

In France, national politicians often also serve as local mayors – and do so with great pride.

And let’s not forget our own history – of inspiring civic leaders like Joseph Chamberlain.

Mr Clark challenged cities to be ambitious in negotiating deals with the Government.

He would never impose an arrangement and a local consensus would need to be agreed. Neither would he approve any deal that did not have a clear role for the LEP.

It is only fair that those who are prepared to organise to be more effective and more efficient should be able to reap substantially the rewards of that boldness, whether in costs saved, additional revenues generated, or powers that can be vested.

The opportunity to take decisions in your town halls on matters – from transport to skills, from health to welfare – that over a hundred years have been taken away from you and put in the hands of people hundreds of miles away with a fraction of your local experience.

You have told me that you can do things better. So why wait? Why miss your chance to break free?

By contrast, M Burnham cut a deeply pessimistic figure.

Isn’t there a real danger that the rhetoric about the Northern Powerhouse will be no more than that — rhetoric — and that councils will be left shouldering the blame for the painful reality of what happens on the ground?

This isn’t the only problem with the Tory approach to devolution.

It seems to me to be axiomatic that devolving power will only truly work when the centre doesn’t impose its will on local areas but instead responds to a genuine demand that comes bottom-up and goes with the local grain.

But that is not how this round of devolution is being conducted.

George Osborne’s approach, whereby powers are offered on condition that local areas accept his model of elected mayors, is the worst of Westminster’s old arrogant ways. Devolution with a gun to the head is not devolution at all.

He was most outspoken on the subject of mayors:

Is it real devolution to the people and communities when huge budgets and powers are vested in the hands of one individual, covering vast areas of the country?

Won’t devolution feel more real if power is pushed down much more than this?

I fully understand why councils still want to take what’s offer but it doesn’t mean that the offer isn’t deeply flawed.

The approach of focusing on city-regions risks leaving smaller towns or more remote and rural areas behind.

It risks creating a two-tier England between the have-powers and the have-no powers.

Of course, I would want groups of councils to be free to form city-region, sub-regional or regional bodies on strategic issues. But those models should be determined locally and not imposed from the top down.

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