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A Magazine for Sheffield

Devolution: Lost Cause?

Before the election, hopes for the devolution debate were high. Most of the parties agreed the ability of local councils to deliver essential services in the current system, with austerity and interference from central government, was seriously compromised, particularly in major cities outside London. There was a mood that change was needed and that it should be one that all could agree to - wide consultation with the public to give confidence in the new arrangements and restore some of the failing levels of voter engagement. The suggested method for this seemed to be the Constitutional Convention, drawing on experience and expertise from outside the Whitehall bubble and including the public in a broad based process. Then came the election, and with it a Conservative majority government. At first the devolution agenda appeared to be on track, with announcements of further powers for Manchester and negotiations with what the Chancellor likes to describe as 'northern powerhouse' cities. But meaningful devolution, based on constitutional arrangements and fiscal freedom, has been ditched. Whilst trumpeting populist policies like English Votes for English Laws, any semblance of real devolution has been reduced to economic measures and functional roles bounded by government targets and current budgets. What is clear is that the public in 'northern powerhouse' cities will have little opportunity to be part of the process. We will have devolution done to us, not by us. The Chancellor aims to have these deals finalised by the spending review this autumn. His other message is that these new powers will only be gifted to those city regions agreeing to a directly elected mayor. This one-size-fits-all approach fails to take into account the local appetite for such an appointment and the very mixed experience of mayors and other such powerful individuals like Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). In Sheffield, we voted two to one against a mayor, and Manchester also rejected one, though their leaders have now agreed to one for Greater Manchester. The insistence from the Chancellor on this model of governance suggests a different agenda, perhaps a desire to break Labour’s council power in the north with a rash of Boris-a-likes. If the level of mayoral support matches that of PCCs, fewer than 20% of voters, it could happen. Our leaders in the city and region are not ruling out an elected mayor. So what is the Chancellor actually offering? Greater Manchester agreed to a £300m housing fund, some unspecified planning powers, integrated local transport (though delivery of the northern Oyster Card is now doubtful), health and social care budgets, business initiatives, administration of the £100m welfare to work programme, and the mayor as the PCC. The Chancellor next offered Manchester control of the fire service budget, a new Land Commission to identify public assets available for housing, and the budgets for children's services and further 'employment' programmes. There is no extra money and recent budget indications show that these functions will be subject to austerity cuts this autumn, on top of further cuts to council budgets. With £20bn of cuts still to be identified from central and local government budgets, this will be a poisoned chalice for the city regions. If they turn the deal down, they'll be accused of failing to take advantage of a generous offer. If they accept the conditions, any cuts will be seen as the region's fault, not the government's. Without a constitutional agreement to make devolution permanent, any government can return these powers and monies to the central pot at any time. Without fiscal devolution, the deal is nothing more than an opportunity to deliver central policies according to central targets and then to blame the regional authorities for any failings. For any hope of delivering a truly devolved local or regional government, we must continue to campaign for a national solution, supported by a broad consensus and responsive to the public appetite for local solutions. @SheffCityNigel )

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