The chancellor’s plans for devolution and building the northern powerhouse, were a positive sign of the government’s commitment to devolution but it is important this ambition is not limited to our great cities.
Mr Osborne set out his willingness to grant sweeping new powers to cities over skills, transport, housing, infrastructure and health, on the condition they adopted an elected mayor.
I have nothing against cities but if there’s one thing I will fight for, it’s for the bigger picture not to be forgotten – not to mention the millions who call the counties and shires home. If Greg Clark’s encouraging noises in LGC are anything to go by, the penny may have dropped.
Devolution means something simple and vital for all of us: faster growth, more jobs and better services, so where now for English devolution?
I’ve heard the chancellor’s speech characterised as the government’s final offer – not so in my view. There are two fundamental reasons why.
First, if the government is going to deliver on its long-term economic plan – boosting jobs and growth and paying down the deficit – it must engage seriously with all the significant growth areas in the country.
County regions are massive contributors to the British economy. Take Greater Essex as an example. Our economy is worth more than that of any major city aside from London and Manchester, and more than those of 11 European countries.
We have thriving new industries in the advanced manufacturing, digital, medical sciences, renewable energy and logistics sectors. We are the gateway to Europe and beyond with two international airports and three major seaports, as well as trading relationships with China.
Only with greater powers and flexibilities will we be able to unlock the true potential of our regional economies.
It means growing the economy and increasing the tax take without raising taxes; getting more people into better paid jobs and reducing the welfare bill; and improving public services and easing the pressures on the NHS.
So my message to George Osborne is simple: what’s good for cities is good for county regions.
Devolution to cities is a step in the right direction, but what would the government have to lose by legislating for a wider devolution bill (not just a cities devolution bill) that enables devolution in all areas, where they want it and can make the case?
Second, it is absolutely right that the government seeks to grow the potential of our northern regions. But if Cameron and Osborne want to lead a truly ‘one nation’ government, they cannot ignore our county regions and southern powerhouses.
It is clearly an unacceptable and untenable situation for one segment of Britain’s population to be empowered and governed from their city hall, while for another to be ruled from Westminster and Whitehall.
The chancellor heralded his announcement as meaning “stronger democracy and greater prosperity for all”.
So if it’s good enough for Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool, it’s good enough for Essex, Kent, Lancashire and Yorkshire.
In the context of ‘Devo-Max’ for Scotland, the question of English devolution will hang in the air until it receives a satisfactory answer; one that threatens to create a “democratic deficit for millions of English citizens”, as others have recently argued.
What is perhaps more fundamental for counties, districts and unitaries is the mayoral question.
George Osborne drew a red line on a “single point of accountability”, stating he would not settle for anything less than a directly elected mayor when it comes to granting more powers to cities.
In county regions, the solution could be in the form of a county governor, with similar powers to metropolitan mayors, or a public services commissioner, covering all public services; similar to police and crime commissioners but with a much broader remit. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
It might not be any of the above but what have we to lose by having a broad-based discussion about it?
Where there are people with real power and responsibilities with that strong democratic accountability they can achieve a great many things and make real change.
Devolving powers to county regions is a win-win-win situation. With devolved powers we will be able to achieve a win for central government, a win for local government, and most importantly a win for the millions of people who would miss out under the current proposals.
David Finch (Con), leader, Essex CC