There could never have been any doubt that, post-referendum, Brexit was going to dominate the government and parliamentary agenda for years.
The promises of the Brexit evangelists – that we could eat our cake and still have it, that an extra £350m a day would be available for the NHS, that hundreds of countries were queueing up to do trade deals which would one-sidedly benefit the UK – have been revealed to have the same content as the emperor’s new clothes.
Just as Brexit is determining the direction of UK travel, this government – even post-Osborne – was declaring that devolution in England was going to be setting the direction of travel for its domestic agenda and at the forefront of its programme for democratic and economic renewal.
But, it’s all gone rather quiet.
Let’s be clear. There are as many different views about the form that devolution might take as there are about the UK’s membership of the EU. And that is the case in all parties.
Further, no-one could ignore the negative public response to the proposals for regional devolution, as opposed to devolution to existing councils, after 2000, even if they might now be seen in a different light today.
It was always going to be the case that there would be no significant changes in the constitutional settlements of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales initiated by this government particularly while the impact of Brexit was being resolved.
As for England, the government set a devolution direction of travel, with a particular view about economic renewal and mayoral leadership in city regions. There seemed to be a welcome measure of discretion and flexibility enabling unique negotiated settlements to fit the particular circumstances of different areas. But this was to be within the context of a wider devolution of powers and resources to local government as a whole.
There was to be a new financial settlement involving 100% local business rate retention which would underpin devolved economic powers and new accountabilities. In exchange for over £10bn of business rates being retained by local government.
With the loss of the legislation following the 2017 general election the proposal is now for 75% retention. it is proposed that the public health grant, already substantially cut since its transfer to local councils, will together with other grants be rolled up in to the main settlement. There will be no devolution of powers or resources and the likelihood of more money being moved from poorer more deprived areas.
And then we come back to Brexit.
Last week, Steve Rotheram (Lab), directly elected mayor of Liverpool City Region, hit the nail on the head when he said “If we continue as we are, then we will not just face economic uncertainty and disruption, but we will also risk a further splintering in the country, between those that feel like they have a stake in their futures, and those who feel that they continue to be ignored. Westminster elites and Whitehall mandarins are every bit as much to blame for people’s sense of alienation as Brussels bureaucrats, but devolution at least offers us a chance to do things differently. Devolving powers to our communities across the country represents the best hope of restoring people’s confidence in the political system. It is not a panacea in itself, but it could go a long way in helping to heal the rifts that divide our society.”
The government has had an occasional chat with the new mayors but shows no intention of working with the Local Government Association and others to develop an overall devolutionary strategy. The Department for Housing, Communities & Local Government didn’t even bid for additional resources to help develop its Brexit strategy or manage the Brexit consequences in its scope of responsibilities.
There are no clear plans to replace the EU funds designed to help the more deprived areas. We need to see meaningful ways for the government formally to engage with local government in place of the Committee of the Regions.
I note that paragraph 3.8 of the government’s February 2017 white paper on Brexit made it clear that it was “committed to devolving greater powers to local government where there is economic rationale to do so”. We’ve seen little evidence so far of any progress.
It’s time for the government to commit to devolution of powers and finance and engage with local government on Brexit. But we can’t simply assume government will deliver. It’s time for local leaders and MPs to develop serious, well-evidenced devolution proposals. Anything less will fail to address the social and economic renewal which is necessary for a sustainable twenty-first century.