Prime minister Theresa May’s call for a “country that works for everyone” has helped create an opportunity for radical devolution, according to the chair of the RSA Inclusive Growth Commission Stephanie Flanders.
The commission, published earlier this week, called for combined authorities to gain much greater control over services and spending than at present planned.
Speaking to LGC, former BBC economics editor Ms Flanders said: “I think this report helps give context to Theresa May’s talk of building a country that works for everyone not just the few, which was a striking part of her first speech as PM.
“You can do a lot at the local economic level, even without lots more money, as people at local level can manage the trade-offs between spending on different services better than those in Whitehall.
“I think there is an emerging consensus in the Treasury, and it is quite a ripe time to push this.”
She credited the change in thinking to former chancellor George Osborne’s support for the Northern Powerhouse, noting government support for the concept and for city deals had survived his departure.
The commission outlines proposals that would see the development of new “social contracts” between local government and Whitehall.
Central government’s role would be to establish agreed common goals and standards and to monitor progress. Meanwhile devolved authorities would be given much more control over – and responsibility for – spending on economic and public services. This would amount to financial autonomy of more than about £70bn for the six combined authorities, which are electing new mayors in May this year.
Ms Flanders suggested central government’s historic reluctance to devolve powers stemmed from a feeling that “once you have your hands on the levers it is hard to let go”.
She said: “Just transferring things from central government to local government will not do much.
“In health and social care you can still have Whitehall thinking about provision of these services and local providers delivering them, but it is local government that makes the decisions on trade-offs for example between preventative and emergency services. They are likely to be able to make better decisions than someone sitting in Whitehall.”