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Andrew Carter: Amid Brexit, government needs devo ambition

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For all that Brexit has dominated almost every aspect of public debate in recent years, one crucial question has not received warranted attention: how could – and should – the UK’s constitutional arrangements change as we leave the EU.

That was highlighted in the recent report by the public administration and constitutional affairs committee, which called on the government to set out a clear post-Brexit devolution policy for the coming years, including on extended city region devolution.

The report’s recommendations reflect the fact progress on this agenda has largely stalled in the two years since the referendum.

Given the huge political focus and resources needed to manage the UK’s departure from the EU, that is unsurprising. But the complexity and difficulty of that task only serves to illustrate why it would be a grave error for the government to allow city region devolution to fall by the wayside.

For a start, with Brexit likely to consume government bandwidth for the foreseeable future, the UK’s heavily centralised political system is hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the many pressing domestic policy challenges facing places across the country.

That has already been evident this summer in the failure to address the ongoing transport problems in the North of England. It has also been apparent in the lack of substantive government action in recent years on important issues like the housing crisis, skills gaps and the productivity puzzle.

It’s clear that if places across the country are to progress and prosper as we leave the EU, central government needs to hand them more power to address these issues. It simply does not have the political capacity or will to do it itself.

The vote for Brexit was driven by political as well as economic disillusionment in many parts of the country. Extending devolution can only help to address these issues by bringing decision-making closer to the lives of people affected by it.

With all this in mind, the upcoming devolution framework due to be published by housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire in the autumn should be treated by the government as an important milestone in the devolution process.

It ought to be ambitious about extending city region devolution, setting out plans to agree deals with major English cities yet to secure them. It should also focus on further empowering the existing metro mayors by giving them more scope to act on skills, planning and other key areas.

The significance the government gives to the framework will signal the level of its ambition and commitment to city region devolution. More importantly, it will have a major bearing on whether places across the country can thrive and prosper in the coming years amid Brexit uncertainty.

Andrew Carter, chief executive, Centre for Cities

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