Your commentary on today’s biggest stories.
Councils’ taxation victory of the day: Firm considers appealing waste VAT exemption ruling
Politics issue of the day: ‘Turning voters off is a bigger risk than electoral fraud’
Devolution policy concern of the day: Growth commission: ‘Limits’ to devolution boosting economy
A senior minister’s personal enthusiasm can be the difference between something happening and not, and so it has been with devolution.
Former chancellor George Osborne strongly supported devolution deals and no minister felt sufficiently strongly otherwise to try to stop him.
So, with the weight of the Treasury marshaled behind it, devolution went ahead when it had for decades made little progress.
The current Osborne-less administration though boasts no obvious devolution champion except business secretary Greg Clark – whose role leaves him limited influence over it – and nor is devolution a concept that has historically animated the Conservative party. Indeed under the Thatcher and Major governments the opposite appeared the case.
Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes (Lab) has now told a conference, on the basis of a meeting he had with the Treasury, that the money men and women in Whitehall intend to adopt a hands-off approach to devolution, leaving it to the Department for Communities & Local Government instead.
This was not, Cllr Forbes said, because the Treasury was now hostile to devolution, but rather post-referendum it had more pressing things with which to concern itself.
If that is right, devolution will perhaps escape from Mr Osborne’s desire to impose elected mayors on vast rural areas, but it will also lose the advantage that comes from having the support of Whitehall’s most powerful department.
Suppose, purely for argument’s sake, that the departments of education, health, and work and pensions were proving uncooperative with devolution.
The Treasury could bang heads together. The DCLG is somewhat less well-placed for such pugilism.
New communities secretary Sajid Javid has inherited a range of unexploded bombs from Mr Osborne including a collapsed deal in the North East, an East Anglia deal now split in two, and internecine disputes of baffling complexity around the Leeds City Region and North Yorkshire, to name a few.
Proposed reorganisations such as that from Buckinghamshire CC may also muddy the picture, as Mr Javid assesses what, if anything, to do with the increasingly moth-eaten two-tier system.
Since his views on devolution remain opaque he might decide to refrain from sorting out quarrelling councillors (as they will no doubt be viewed in Whitehall). Or the former business secretary might see an opportunity to make a success of devolution deals that improve local economies, which in turn will please a prime minister engaged on an increasingly urgent search for growth.
Councils’ most effective argument for devolution was not simply that it was desirable in itself, but that it would improve the economy – an idea Mr Osborne bought.
This case formed part of London mayor Sadiq Khan’s (Lab) request this week for powers equivalent to those of the mayor of New York, which would include skills, training, health services, national rail, criminal justice and tax raising powers.
A reminder of the need for action came from the Centre for Cities thinktank which found 90% of UK cities were below the European average for productivity and only Cambridge and Oxford were in the European top 20 for innovation.
Backward and unproductive? That’s not the image any city, minister or government wants, surely?