Devolution – are we missing the point?

This blogpost first appeared on Bristol 24/7 “Is Bristol falling behind with devolution?

So the West of England, we are lead to believe, has so far been missing from government conversations about the latest round of devolution, but does it matter? The business community would have us believe it is critical, whilst many of our politicians are resistant to change, but what does anyone else think? There lies the problem with the ‘debate’ to date. It has been held within the closed world of our politicians, business leaders and the LEP. It has also focused on structure rather than content. The outcry from our local political leaders has been against a centrally imposed model that involves a formally constructed combined authority, with a metro-mayor sitting at the head of the structure.

But there’s something missing from this debate. All this focus on structure is missing the point. The key question we should be considering as a city region is whether or not the offer from government is good enough. The starting point should be about what we need from a devolution deal. What powers and additional resources would help us to reduce poverty and social exclusion, what would make the most difference to our communities? What would help people and goods to move around the area better and would provide for quality, sustainable lifestyles, that both enhance conditions for growth, whilst maintaining the quality environment that makes our city-region so special? These things surely have to be the starting point for the debate?

We also need to broaden that debate out to be more inclusive. It needs to go beyond the ‘behind closed doors’ approach to one that involves the third sector, local people and communities. It strikes me as odd that such key decisions can be left to unelected, self-appointed business ‘leaders’ alongside local politicians, who have seldom, if ever, engaged with the electorate on the idea of devolution.

A recent debate I attended involving third sector organisations was both positive and refreshingly different, with energy and creativity all part of the mix. The focus was on devolution to and within cities. The rallying call was for civil society to take back control of the agenda and be ready to show the leadership required to ensure any deal is the right deal for our local communities. The positive debate was about having a shared vision, that we could all sign up to and the opportunity to do something different that will actually make a difference to the most vulnerable in our society. It wasn’t just about jobs and GDP, it was about people and their needs. It wasn’t just about creating wealth, but about helping people to move out of poverty and it wasn’t just about business needs, but also about the needs of local people and communities. That’s the type of debate we need to have about devolution and the kind of devolution deal I’d be proud to support. But is that what’s on offer?

Precisely what are the government offering local councils? The biggest deal signed off so far has been to the Greater Manchester city region. This included localized control over health spending, transport, skills, housing and planning. Cornwall’s deal, the first county to receive agreement, was less extensive but included greater control over local bus services, support to bring health and social care services together, skills and business support. The suite of services up for negotiation is quite extensive, but to claim them all requires a submission to a centrally imposed structure, otherwise the government has warned, the deals will be more limited.

So, what should be top of the list in Bristol and what would make the most difference here? Is it about supporting the most vulnerable into work and addressing key employment challenges in our local neighbourhoods? Should it be about energy and environmental issues, or supporting business and innovation, or maybe even combining the two? What about housing, how big an issue is this and should we be asking for devolved funding or improved borrowing ability to enable us to build more local, affordable homes? Would greater ability to integrate local health and social care services provide for a substantially improved service? Or is it all about transport, the focus of so much debate around here? The list goes on, but are our business leaders and politicians discussing all the options or are they solely focused on resisting the idea of a formal combined authority structure and directly elected metro-mayor that they have forgotten what the debate should be about?

Other city regions and councils across the country are putting together their bids and many are already in negotiation with government. There’s potentially a lot on offer that would make a difference locally. But the bid has to be the right bid with the right intentions otherwise it’ll have little impact where it matters.

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