In an unusual display of political unity, our national leaders have recognised that something is wrong in England. Suddenly devolution has been promised left, right and centre as a remedy to the nation’s ills.
The prime minister’s post-referendum pledge to hand over power appeared be confined to urban areas but nevertheless seemed an honest response to the perceived disconnect from local people which is as visible south of the border as it is in Scotland. At the Conservative party conference, Eric Pickles backed a more widespread devolution, while Hilary Benn urged councils to group together to win powers at Labour’s conference the previous week. Inevitably, Nick Clegg will offer devolution when the Liberal Democrats – the self-declared “party of devolution” – meet next week.
However, LGC’s survey of leading officers and members shows the high level of scepticism about such pledges. Our respondents rated their level of confidence that their area would gain devolved power at just 4.1 out of 10. They have been here before – power has been regularly promised, only for Whitehall and Westminster self-interest to block what had seemed inevitable.
The prime minister was clear about his timescale for constitutional change in the aftermath of the referendum. It is now imperative that he is as clear about the timescale for devolution across England. Only then will the scepticism begin to ease.
One of the most noticeable features of LGC’s survey is the expectation that partnerships of councils will be the overriding beneficiaries of the hand-down of power. That combined authorities, city regions, local enterprise partnerships and new council partnerships are perceived to be the likely winners of power come as no surprise to readers. However, it may come as a surprise to local people that power is to be devolved closer to them – and they have little knowledge of the organisation that is winning it on their behalf.
In some areas – Greater Manchester for instance – the prospective beneficiary has a clear identity, recognisable to those unfamiliar with the impact of economies of scale on public service efficiency. In other places, however, it is likely the public will be suspicious. “City regions are artificial groupings,” said one respondent. The public may feel the same about combined authorities made up of different counties whose inhabitants have had unfavourable opinions of one another for the past few centuries.
Referendums for the north east regional assembly and city mayors in many cities have shown the political classes that their plans may be scuppered by local resistance. Referendums may not be required to create combined authorities or enhance their powers but this does not mean the public will stand nonchalantly by while a new tier of government is created.
The proponents of enhanced power for combined authorities do not just need to win ministers over. The onus is now upon the most powerful people in local government to build a coherent case to show their residents how these partnerships work in their favour.