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This has been a remarkable summer for devolution devotees. Making the most of their election win, the Conservatives have moved rapidly on the Northern Powerhouse, Devo Manc, metro mayors and firm commitments to further devolution deals. Meanwhile, devolution has been one of the big themes for the Labour party leadership contest, just as we predicted. But with ballot papers due to go out to Labour members and supporters on Friday (14 August), to date the leadership contest has only served to illustrate the difficulties the party is facing in responding to the devolution gauntlet that the Conservatives have so dramatically thrown down.
The ongoing divisions within the party were laid bare by Jeremy Corbyn’s statement last week that the Northern Powerhouse is a “cruel deception” and Sir Richard Leese’s blunt response – that this “completely ignores what Labour in the North is doing”. Despite running so many of the major cities that are campaigning for greater devolution, the national Labour party – having adopted a tentative and uncertain approach to devolution in the run-up to the election – continues to struggle to offer a bold vision for the future of cities.
Devolution to cities and counties was always going to pose challenges for the Labour party given its traditional centralised approach to policymaking, borne out of a desire to ensure that there are uniform standards across the country. Concerns about postcode lotteries run deep. Yet with growing interest from people in having greater local influence, at the same time as the Conservatives have created a national debate with the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ concept, no leadership candidate can afford to ignore it.
The result has been some quite different ideas of devolution set out by the candidates and the only common theme being their assertion that the Government is getting it wrong, particularly with the Chancellor’s insistence on metro mayors being part of any deal.
Liz Kendall has been the clearest proponent of devolution, arguing that welfare, housing, health and transport should be devolved to combined authorities. She has criticised Labour as too “timid” and too slow to seize the agenda, and called for a “new political settlement where power is devolved to the nations, cities, towns, and counties of Britain”.
Yvette Cooper has also come out in favour of offering combined authorities even more devolved powers than the Government has so far given to Manchester (including control over education, skills, and energy). She has argued, however, that places should not have to adopt a metro mayor as a condition for gaining those powers.
Meanwhile Andy Burnham (previously critical of the Government’s decision to give leaders in Manchester control over local NHS services) has argued that devolution needs to be “consistent” and on offer to everywhere, but not ‘one size fits all’ (an approach that seems somewhat contradictory). In his own words, he envisages ‘devo-max for local democracy’ that is available to everyone, ‘bottom-up’ and that ‘goes to the lowest level possible’, i.e. presumably meaning a focus on communities rather than combined authorities.
Finally Corbyn’s ‘Northern Future’ speech saw him rail against the Northern Powerhouse and call for the reindustrialisation of the North as a solution to rebalancing the UK economy. The extent to which this is a scenario desired by northern cities, many of whom have worked hard to diversify their economies, is debatable, but what is very clear is that, if Corbyn wins, many of the devolution deals on the table look much less secure.
The uncertainty of what will happen, whoever wins the Labour leadership contest, matters to anyone committed to greater devolution to cities. In the remaining weeks of the campaign it’s likely that the discussion will be caught up more and more in attractive “retail” promises, such as ‘reindustrialisation of the North’, Cooper’s vow to fight for the future of coalmines, and Burnham’s promise to renationalise the railways. While this is understandable, and probably inevitable in a leadership race, whoever wins in September needs to recognise the significance of devolution for their long term agenda.
By 2020 cities will still be vital to driving growth in the UK, but the landscape will be quite different, with a changed central state and cities which have had powers for a few years. Each of the candidates should be thinking now about how they plan to apply ‘Labour values’ to a UK where power is more dispersed, and where city-regions are widely recognised as the key building blocks of the national economy. On the basis of what we have seen so far in the leadership race, uniting the party behind a coherent vision for devolution will be a tough challenge. Yet it is vital for the UK economy, which depends on successful cities, that we have greater certainty over this agenda across the different parties, so that cities can get on with making the most of their economies in the years ahead.
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