The devolution agenda in England appears to have an element of cross party consensus, at least on the surface in relation to the need for something to change, even if the detail is somewhat lacking. The discussion to date appears to be dominated by central government, local authorities and business, with the emphasis very much on what the government wants, with everyone else running around to catch up. It’s also a debate that seems to be focused on structures rather than resources and responsibilities, as is often the way with public sector change. The concept is debated without the detail, when we all know “the devil is in the detail”. The whole debate is also being conducted against a backdrop of austerity measures, where local government funding is being severely cut and public services decimated. So one has to ask the question whether or not devolution is just an opportunity for government to shift the burden of cuts and service delivery to local councils, or whether it is really responding to an agenda about democratic accountability and improving local services. I guess it’s a bit of both?
With the establishment of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) and talk of Combined Authorities the discussion, at least in Bristol, seems to centre around business and growth, with the business community working alongside the public sector to create their vision for the growth and prosperity of an area. It’s been about marketing the city region, saying how fantastic we are, quoting GDP and GVA figures to show what a strong economy we have and talking about all the brilliant local businesses we have in all the right sectors. All very important of course, but sadly lacking in terms of any reference to communities, poverty and inequalities. In our rush to say what a brilliant place the Bristol city region is, we forget about what’s important and all too often lack any connection with local people and local needs.
George Ferguson, in a presentation to the community and voluntary sector in Bristol described devolution as “local freedom” and made reference to the Charter for Local Freedom. The Charter, whilst based on the principles of prosperity, equality and democracy, comes across primarily as an economic vision, with the focus on strengthening local economies and getting people into jobs in order to save public money. However, it also has a strong vein running through it about local democracy, trusting people to make the right choices, empowering communities and neighbourhoods, with the decisions taken at the most appropriate level. This was a key theme to emerge from the debate at the VOSCUR meeting in Bristol where there was a real sense that devolution needed to be about devolution within cities not just to cities. One of the main voices missing in the debate is that of the community and voluntary sector and there was a call from members of the panel for a strong shared vision to emerge from the sector and the need for community leadership, to challenge the business focused vision that is firmly in place through the LEPs.
Throughout the debate it was clear that there was a real emphasis on the need for civil society to take back control of this agenda and stop it being about reaction to a centrally imposed system or approach. If the debate about devolution is really about local freedom, then the power to decide locally what are the best structures and the required resources is absolutely fundamental to its success. A one size fits all approach, imposed by the centre on local councils desperate to win out in competitive funding regimes, is not the answer. An approach founded on proper engagement of local people, beyond business and politicians, based on local need and local circumstances would undoubtedly work better, but is in itself a real challenge for central government. For government to not only devolve decision making and resources, but also decisions about structures, it has to have a sense that the local area can be trusted and that it will come up with something that works. Sadly, this doesn’t often seem to be the foundation of the relationship between our different levels of government at the moment, often for justifiable reasons.
The devolution agenda is an opportunity to do something different. It’s an opportunity for public, private and voluntary and community sectors to put together a local proposal that works for the city region. There is no central blueprint, what works in Manchester won’t necessarily work in Bristol. The trick is for Bristol, and other areas, to put forward those proposals, collaboratively, through proper engagement and discussion, and ensure that what Bristol gets is best for Bristol. The key for the voluntary and community sector is to ensure they are a central part of the discussion, that they are at the table when the decisions are taken and that they have a shared vision and strong leadership to ensure their voice is heard. At the moment, it feels like we are a long way from this shared vision and time is running out.