With Whitehall so distracted, where now for devolution?

COMMENT: We are still adjusting to the fallout from June’s General Election of course, not to mention grappling with the ghastly realities thrown up by the Grenfell disaster.

One casualty of all the negative events in recent months, but dating back to Brexit really, is the push for devolution. And by coincidence, three different people have asked me about this in the past week, I guess inevitably following on from the recent fallout in Sheffield (just on that, having often worked with Jo Miller, the chief executive of Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, I tell you this: she is nothing if not supremely team-spirited).

Sadly, devolution was always rather a fragile flower – with Whitehall totally schizophrenic about it: on the one hand is the view (which could be roughly characterised as the “sneery metropolitan elite” position) that local stakeholders cannot be trusted to do things properly; on the other hand there is a pragmatic acceptance that in an age of austerity we can’t afford to deliver any other way. And there will always be a resistance to giving up any powers. And very few, save for Greg Clark and Michael Heseltine and a small clutch of civil servants (and me) take the ideological view that the experts in any local place (and the people best able to build their local economies) are the local leaders (civic and business) of that place.

Greg Clark is still business secretary of course, and it is no accident that his industrial strategy (quaint 1970s construct) has been partially morphed into a “place-based industrial strategy” which to me looks pretty much like code for devolution.

BUT government is very preoccupied and distracted right now. The politicians/ministers are obsessive about who is going to get the Tories out of their self-inflicted mess (gawd knows what will happen in Manchester); the civil servants are bound up with Brexit and (particularly in CLG) the Grenfell response (it is going to run for 10 years at least). It is all damage limitation and testament of despair stuff. There is a vortex of negativity in Whitehall. No-one is really concerned much with doing anything positive about growth (although obviously they would all deny this to the hilt). The big exception to all this (apart from Greg Clark himself of course) is the new minister for Northern Powerhouse (Jake Berry) who is getting out and about and doing some admirable stuff.

So… yes, devolution is a bit on the back burner. Sheffield is a casualty. But enough was achieved before Brexit to give it sufficient traction with savvy groups of local authorities (notably Greater Manchester and the West Midlands) to start being truly self-determining. So we will soon be able to judge whether these conurbations start to perform better (economically at least).

Both GM and WM have stopped “asking for permission” and are beginning to make demands. Andy Street is nothing short of a revelation. We need to shift the culture of local authorities away from being supplicant (particularly as there will be NO grant from the centre from 2020 so they will have to start being more entrepreneurial and sweating their assets).

And yes, with Whitehall distracted there is a massive vacuum in this arena. Which is an opportunity of course. And the LGA leaders have already spotted this. Local leaders have all to play for. Our new mayors are some of the most powerful politicians in the country right now. And if they do come up with a plausible plan, particularly on housing and infrastructure, they will stand to be rewarded…

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