Last month saw a transformational reappraisal of how the UK thinks about political power.
Suddenly English devolution could be contained no longer and has suddenly jumped out of the ‘too difficult box’.
What was once only considered within the corridors of academia is now discussed on the evening news and littered throughout major party conference speeches.
The devolution debate has moved forward dramatically and not just for our Celtic cousins. Yet there remains a sense that this opportunity will be short lived and before long self-interest will see it firmly placed back out of reach. It will soon be withdrawn from the front pages of our newspapers and head back into our dusty textbooks.
While commentators are still speaking excitedly about resolving the ‘English question’, I nevertheless fear that a focus on votes at Westminster risks completely missing the point. As the Financial Times said on 26 September, it would be an opportunity lost to “substitute a shuffling of power between politicians – English MPs get more, the Scots less – for the urgent task of dispersing authority within England”.
Scots were tempted by independence because of their detachment from the politicians and civil servants of Whitehall and the all-encompassing power that they wield. The narrow focus on the West Lothian question ignores the real message behind calls, not just in Scotland but also across all our nations, that Westminster government is too remote, unresponsive and unrepresentative.
Changing the mechanics of voting in the Westminster lobby changes nothing for the 85% of the population that also feel so distant from the most centralised state in the western world. And to ignore this risks letting the current opportunity slip through the country’s fingers and will place genuine devolution back into the ‘too difficult box’ for another generation.
I believe that this devolution must instead focus on our ambition – the ambition of our local places to build their own sustainable, successful communities. Devolution should see power placed closer to the local communities it affects, not merely because that is what democracy demands, but because of the ambition of those communities to change.
Devolution without ambition is a mere power grab – precisely the charge we make of the centre.
This attitude leads us into a space where the devolution debate becomes about freedom rather than structures or finance. For example, while five-year revenue settlements are not without their advantages, they are not devolution.
Instead there should be a shift from dependence on central government grants to councils relying on taxes they levy on their own voters. In the future, I want the Solace spokesperson on finance to be talking about how local areas are using money in new ways to improve the lives of residents and communities – not how much more Whitehall should have given our town halls in the latest settlement.
I also hope that local leaders are prepared to take on the difficult challenges that Westminster has failed to address, and not just cherry pick the more palatable sweeteners from Whitehall.
The work programme is a perfect example of where the local insights councils can bring will ensure their influence can make the difference. The need for full health and social care integration stares us straight in the face, but only through silo-breaking local solutions is sustainable change really possible.
By taking on a system-wide responsibility for local public services councils can finally produce public services that can transform the lives of those who depend on them, and advance the prospects of those who live in their areas.
Local government must come together, be bold and ensure that the devolution fire remains alight well into the next parliament. The voters of Scotland have spoken, and provided an opportunity for local government to ensure the voices of communities right across our United Kingdom are heard.