Everyone is talking about devo-max, though some of us ‘experienced’ (or cynical) enough to remember the ‘freedoms and flexibilities’ club of the first 14 ‘excellent’ authorities (in which both Kent and Hammersmith & Fulham boldly proposed ‘public service boards’ managing *all* government spend locally) might be dubious about the extent of what will actually happen.
In this opinion piece, RedQuadrant consultant Peter Johnson, a former chief executive, takes a hard look at the implications for the nation state, and for this nation state in particular… He calls it ‘devo-mix’.
A couple of alternative perspectives on devolution to cities and local areas in England:
“Greater Manchester’s £6bn NHS budget devolution begins in April. Greater Manchester will begin taking control of its health budget from April after a devolution agreement was signed by the Chancellor George Osborne.”
“Cornwall devolution deal confirmed.”
“The Devolution Bill will pave the way for cities and counties around the country to gain new wide-ranging powers.”
“Devolution deals pitch for £60bn in Whitehall cash”
Everyone’s familiar with the headlines and the story so far. The Manchester and Cornwall examples are exactly that – just two examples of a whole series of deals and proposals for the devolution of powers and some revenue raising capability to cities (or city regions) and other non-metropolitan areas in England.
Manchester is remarkable because it was both the first and the most ambitious deal, and we know that other big cities followed with their own proposals; Cornwall is quoted to show how the idea has quickly spread to other, more rural areas – there are many more “county-based” bids hoping for Treasury approval in the forthcoming spending review.
These are exciting developments, very significant for local government and having enormous potential impact on local economies, transport infrastructure, skills and employment prospects, housing and health. Whether that potential is realised and whether the impact is beneficial or otherwise will depend on the true willingness and ability of government to devolve, and the capacity of local government and public service partners to live up to their bids at the more strategic, systemic level (even the bids as submitted to the Treasury are in some cases in conflict, as different power centres lay claim to the same territory).
But this piece sidesteps those big, complex questions to pose two others:
- Is this actually about avoiding a debate on an English parliament?
- At the international level, are national governments not only losing power to supra-national, global organisations and power-blocs on the one hand, but also to their own big cities on the other?
The English question
No Prime Minister would have wanted to discuss with the Queen the constitutional implications of Scottish independence had the referendum gone that way. Calls for an English parliament would have been loud, immediate and perhaps more justified, and the nature of the Union would have been in question.
Part of the offer for Scots to remain in the Union was “devo-max”, new, more extensive devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament, and that itself has had obvious repercussions for Wales, Northern Ireland and, now, city-regions or sub-regions of England, hence (after the Manchester deal) “devo-manc”. The potential extent of devolution on the Manchester scale (which won’t be bid for and certainly not granted in every case) led a Welsh MP to say, in the debate on the Queen’s Speech:
“it is reported that the cities and local government devolution Bill will fully devolve powers over transport, planning, housing and – critically – policing. That means that some cities in England will have more powers than the sovereign national Parliament of Wales. What is more, those powers are being handed out across the UK without any requirement for referendums”.
Referenda, of course, don’t have a great track record of eliciting public support for regional government (2004) or directly elected mayors (2012).
And in any case there is serious work to do to begin to realise the potential:
“Devo Manc holds out the promise of meaningful and deep integration within the health service, and between health and social care. This integration has great potential to offer real benefits to patients. In particular, it could help to deliver genuinely patient-centred and genuinely coordinated care.
That would be quite a prize for patients in Greater Manchester. But the evidence tells us that delivering this will be tough. Very tough. Complex integration takes time and patience to deliver results. And given the efficiency demands being placed on the health system currently, we might say time is short.”
Tameside GP Dr Kailash Chand, deputy chair of the British Medical Association
So there is an argument that this proposed devolution is as much about avoiding (or at least distracting from) the question of an English parliament as it is about “the northern powerhouse”, reviving local economies or building new infrastructure.
If that were so, would it make devolution more or less likely to be successful?
Save the Union, weaken the nation state?
In the rest of the world, where Scottish independence and “English votes for English laws” are spoken of a little less often, there is also an argument that in the globalised, interconnected economy, nation states have become less important, and their big cities more so.
Nation states have ceded power to supranational institutions such as the EU, the Euro and its ECB, and the IMF. Less formally, strategic decisions which affect national policies are taken at G8 meetings. In the interests of free trade, nations sign international trade treaties aiming to establish a playing field for multinational corporations free of annoying obstacles like national standards on employment protection, health and safety, environmental protection or sustainable energy.
Big cities simply connect to the global economy and to each other by virtue of their intellectual, commercial and industrial capacity, and with little dependence on or recognition of national borders. Paradoxically, when information can travel the world in a microsecond, talent and innovation tends to cluster in urban areas, often megacities like Bangalore and Mumbai.
Australia and Canada have also witnessed the conspicuous rise of local councils such as the City of Sydney or Vancouver City Council, both now far more advanced in developing integrated environmental strategies than their respective federal governments.
Other non-capital cities such as Lagos or Mumbai have substantial international presence despite the relative dysfunction of their home nations. Over the past decade, most Indian and Chinese provinces have also set up their own trade and investment promotion offices worldwide, often as non-diplomatic and purely commercial ventures to attract tourism and investment.
Big cities frequently outperform their national economies:
And they can do more than nations to combat climate change:
“Climate-smart cities could save the world $22tn, say economists
Green buildings and better infrastructure would not only spur economic growth but also cut carbon emissions equal to India’s annual output”
Through global networks such as C40, they:
“facilitate dialogue amongst city officials. This builds trusted relationships, which in turn ensures that ideas, solutions, lessons, questions, and even friendly competition can flow freely and responsively to cities’ needs. Rather than end at a case study or report, C40 Networks create conversations, which enable cities to tailor their own actions to their unique situations, and band together to use their collective power to access partnership resources, including technical and financial support. The result is that cities’ climate actions to reduce GHGs and climate risks are bolder, more impactful, implemented faster, at a lower cost and with less resources than if they were to go it alone. No other organisation facilitates such deep connections amongst city staff across 50+ countries, 20 time zones and 26 languages to accelerate local action with major global impact.”
Despite their influence on national leaders, can G8 or G20 claim as much?
One socio-economic commentator has observed that:
“global inequality is now again predominantly within societies (particularly key cities and the hinterlands) rather than across them (between rich and poor nations). Again: those living in the world’s principal cities anywhere often have more in common with each other than with their own compatriots.”
This is not to suggest that any currently suggested form of devolution consciously plays into these global trends, but the point is that they might, now or in the near future, be beyond the power of national government to resist or control by the partial transfer of statutory competences.