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The devolution deception must be exposed

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I am writing in advance of the spending review but it is a safe bet that he will strive to make further steps towards the super-centralisation of the English state.

This may seem an odd thing to say, given that hardly a week goes by without the chancellor talking about his plans to push power out of Whitehall down to the cities and sub-regions of England.

His Manchester speech of 14 May 2015 on building a Northern Powerhouse provided the template for many follow-up speeches. In it he said “the old model of trying to run everything from the centre of London is broken” and that he planned to “deliver radical devolution to the great cities of England”.

This is empty rhetoric.

In international research carried out for a new book, Leading the Inclusive City, I have examined, on a global basis, why some cities, city regions and localities are far more successful than others.

The international evidence, derived from the experience of 15 of the most innovative cities in the world (in 13 different countries and covering all continents), suggests that inspirational place-based leadership can make a big difference to the quality of life in any given city.

The analysis suggests that it is clear that central governments can either help or hinder their cities and city regions. It is clear that any authentic devolution of power must pass two tests.

First, do the elected local authorities have constitutional protection from interference by higher levels of government?

Second, do the elected local authorities have substantial tax-raising powers?

Mr Osborne’s proposals fail both these fundamental tests.

Last week, at the Bristol Festival of the Future City, I had the opportunity in a public meeting to ask communities secretary Greg Clark whether he had any plans to ensure his government’s proposal for ‘devolution’ would pass either of these tests. He said no.

To be fair to the government, Mr Clark and other ministers are making it clear, albeit usually behind closed doors in secretive meetings, that despite the rhetoric about devolution there is no question of allowing local authorities to raise, say, 50% of their revenue from locally determined taxes, as happens in other countries.

We may conclude, then, that no real devolution in England is being proposed.

Rather, the central state is in the process of decentralising blame, nicely ahead of time, for the truly massive local government public spending cutbacks that the government wishes to impose in the next four years.

When I explain the governments’ proposals to politicians, public servants, business leaders and community activists in other countries, they are deeply shocked.

For example, in Germany, Sweden and the USA, elected local authorities are entirely free to do things differently. There is no question of the central state imposing specific requirements on particular elected local authorities or telling them how much tax they can raise locally, still less picking off individual groups of local authorities on a case-by-case basis.

Flunking the two crucial tests of devolution is deeply troubling for those of us who care about local democracy, civic innovation and the creation and growth of local businesses.

But it is much worse than that. We are witnessing the super-centralisation of the English state.

First, the so-called ‘devolution deals’ - at this point there are around 30 of them either in place or close to being agreed - involve ministers crawling over the intricate details of the arrangements for each particular place.

Ministers, not elected local politicians, still less local citizens, will decide whether the deals are acceptable. The accountability is up to distant figures in Whitehall, not down to local people.

Second, these are classic divide-and-rule tactics. Elected local politicians understand this well enough and they have my support. However, at this point, they have few options. They want the best for their areas but they are being kept in the dark. Ministers have been keen to keep the deals secret as part of their strategy for centralising power.

Third, in some areas of the country, elected local councils have said no to the proposed decentralisation arrangements. It is understood, and this is astonishing, that ministers are now considering bringing forward an amendment to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill to block the power of individual local authorities to do this.

The evidence presented in my book shows that no other democratic country is pursuing a policy of centralisation on steroids. If England is to prosper this devolution deception needs to be exposed.

Robin Hambleton, professor of city leadership, University of the West of England



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