Last week saw the first all-Conservative Queen’s speech since 1996. It was also the first time any government signalled so clearly its intentions for decentralising power.
The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, included in last Wednesday’s speech, opens the door for more areas in England to get power over housing, transport, planning and policing.
With George Osborne continuing to provide the top-level leadership, it does signal that these commitments are being taken seriously. Keen decentralisers have been appointed in both the Treasury (Jim O’Neill) and as communities secretary (Greg Clark), as well as a specific minister in charge of the northern powerhouse initiative (James Wharton). They should prove a powerful force within Whitehall to unblock the barriers to decentralisation.
So while the Institute for Government broadly welcomes the inclusion of decentralisation provisions in the Queen’s Speech, we also believe the bill raises six key questions for local government:
1. What exactly will be up for grabs? For example, will there be more opportunities for counties and rural areas to adapt skills policy to their local needs?
2. Will further decentralisation lead to better tailoring of services to meet local needs, making public services become more responsive to citizens?
3. What will happen in areas that do not take up the offer of further devolution, and what will be the effect of ad-hoc devolution on the wider policy landscape?
4. Will local areas making further cuts to services have the expertise and capacity to take on these additional responsibilities?
5. Given the considerable ongoing collaboration and joint management that these new arrangements will require, how can central and local administrations find ways to work together effectively
6. How will good examples of best practice be shared across the local government sector?
Not only will these questions be important to local government, but they will be the focus for our work in this area as well, as more cities, towns and rural areas take up the devolution mantle.
Finally, some of the language used in the bill remains unclear. It refers to ‘large cities’ and ‘other places’, saying the provisions will enable government to empower ‘towns and counties’. But with Greater Manchester as the blueprint, we cannot tell what this will mean in practice for towns, counties, or rural areas.
The inclusion of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill in the Queen’s speech does not in itself guarantee that the promised devolution to cities and regions will be delivered but it is encouraging to see this agenda being backed by a strong team within the new government.
Jo Casebourne, programme director, Institute for Government