“We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives,” said Theresa May in her Mansion House speech at the beginning of the month.
Much can be read into that statement but one thing most commentators and experts took it to mean is that her government plans to devolve more powers once Britain leaves the European Union.
In February Ms May’s now de facto deputy David Lidington said in a separate speech that “the vast majority of powers returning from Brussels will start off in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – and not in Whitehall”.
If we want to take back control, we should bring powers not just back from Brussels to London but from London to the regions
While discussions about further devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ongoing, very little has been said about more powers and controls being handed to areas in England – not for a couple of years anyway.
In the government’s first annual report on devolution in England, published in December 2016, communities secretary Sajid Javid said: “In the EU referendum, the British people sent a clear message that they wanted more control over their lives, that they felt disconnected from democracy when governed by a distant elite. That means there’s no point in us taking power back from Brussels only to hoard it in Westminster.
“If we’re serious about re-enfranchising Britain and delivering sustained economic growth in communities right across the country, we have to give real power to the people affected most by decisions on everything from housing to healthcare.”
And Melanie Dawes, the permanent secretary of the Department for Communities & Local Government, said in July of that year that the government had “embraced” the idea of transferring powers and controls from Brussels to local government when Britain leaves the EU.
Those were encouraging words at the time but the sector has heard very little since then.
But last week Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry provided some encouragement as he told MPs devolution could be regarded as “the golden thread of Brexit” and added the government would give clarity on how areas can drive forward deals in the coming months.
“If we want to take back control, we should bring powers not just back from Brussels to London but from London to the regions,” said Mr Berry.
However, after months of silence pessimism has permeated through the sector.
While I am keen and passionate about devolution… if you think these issues are motivating the public, the are not
Speaking at an LDE event on Brexit earlier this month Local Government Association chair Lord Porter (Con) said: “It’s not in anybody’s vested interests when they have control to cede it to somebody else. We normally only give powers away when we think the clock is ticking and we hand it over.”
Former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine, more recently a special adviser to the government on devolution, told the same event: “I don’t believe there is any strong feeling for devolution in England.”
He blamed “massive inertia largely driven by the self-interest” of both Whitehall and councils – the latter wary of reorganisation – “to hang on to what they have got”.
While there is a growing consensus among experts in the sector that devolution in England can help Britain’s economy thrive post-Brexit, Lord Heseltine warned that school of thought had not yet been picked up by the general public.
“Whilst I am keen and passionate about devolution… if you think these issues are motivating the public, they are not,” said Lord Heseltine.
Centre for Cities chief executive Andrew Carter said all of the forecasts were predicting an economic downturn post-Brexit, no matter what the final deal is, and he warned “everybody will be negatively hit”. As a result that “makes it much more difficult” for the government to devolve more powers to local government as he said public sector spending would be “squeezed”.
He said there was currently “very little bandwidth in central government generally” to deal with anything other than Brexit and added: “Post-Brexit devolution, as difficult as the environment has already been, you can see it becoming even more difficult.”
Difficult as the environment has already been, you can see it becoming even more difficult
He called on the government to “abolish our two-tier system” and “move to a unitary system” across the whole of England based on boundaries that “match our economic geography”.
“Scotland and Wales have done this and the wheels haven’t fallen off and I think it’s time for England to grasp that,” he said, but added: “The likelihood of this happening is incredibly low”.
The Department for Communities & Local Government’s former permanent secretary and now crossbench peer Lord Kerslake said the current structure of local government does not lend itself well to all repatriated powers from Brussels being devolved to areas in England. However he said devolution “could achieve a more purposeful approach to economic development than we have had so far”.
Lord Kerslake said there was “an opportunity for the government to advance devolution” to areas in England as part of the Brexit process and added ministers had to do something to “shift the dial” in relation to how few powers areas had over important policies. A failure to do so “will be a great opportunity missed”, he said.
Lord Kerslake added: “If we come out of this Brexit process and nothing else has changed and none of the underlying issues about the centralised nature of this country, the economic imbalances, the disconnection between those doing the governing and the governed, then what was it all for?”
It is a question the government has yet to answer.