The election has decided what devolution will mean up to 2020 and beyond.
Big concepts have competing meanings. To some, devolution is an end in itself and a right. To others, it is a means to an end such as growth or public service reform.
The chancellor’s post-election speech and Greg Clark’s arrival at the Department for Communities & Local Government tell us both the purpose and the likely tests of permitted devolution. George Osborne condemns centralised Britain for unbalancing the economy, alienating citizens and undermining democracy. He calls for fundamental change.
That is as tough a critique of British centralism as we have heard. However, ambition comes with challenge for cities and others to meet the chancellor’s goals for devolution.
George Osborne’s commentary and the way that Greg Clark ran cities devolution before 7 May tell us much about how to seize power from Whitehall in the decade ahead. From Clark: enthusiasm to support practical plans that address genuine local needs. From Osborne: the power to transfer power – if he believes in the commitment of those seeking the transfer.
Their joint history suggests six guidelines for drawing power out of Whitehall.
First, there is no upper limit on what cities can ask for; the challenge is what we offer in return.
Second, outcomes should support economic growth and lower public spending.
Third, proposals must be detailed and rooted in an understanding of their particular community.
Fourth, they must address key problems, not just matters where local agreement is easy.
Fifth, local partners must show that their partnerships will endure.
Last and most challenging for some: elected mayors. Local leaders are being challenged: if convinced that their plans are sound then they must prove it by crossing this Rubicon.
This is partly about accountability. It is also about burning boats and ensuring no return to the old parent/child relationship between centre and locality.
Clark and Osborne may represent the greatest commitment to devolution from the top of government that this country has seen. As Profesor Melvin Kranzberg, of Georgia Tech, once said of technology, these two men’s version of devolution is neither good, bad or neutral. It is however, the only version and something to be seized.
Dick Sorabji, corporate director of policy and public affairs, London Councils