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As part of its drive to make savings, BIS is closing its office in central Sheffield and moving its functions back to London. The move has raised a number of questions, all of which were put to Martin Donnelly, the permanent secretary at BIS by MPs yesterday. It’s fair to say that the MPs weren’t too impressed by his answers.
This morning I was interviewed by BBC Radio Sheffield on the matter. One of the concerns raised was that the move will mean that ever more policy decisions will be created and implemented from London.
While this may be true if one looks at this decision in isolation, at the same time a number of places, Sheffield included, are about to have more powers passed down to them through devolution. The reality is that the decision makers in central government are based in London, and the way to address concerns about where decisions are taken is to devolve decision-making powers down to city-regions. Successful devolution, which Sheffield is currently pursuing, will have a much greater impact on the ability to make decisions in Sheffield than the loss of its BIS office.
So in this vein it’s very disappointing to see this week Gateshead reject and Durham defer making a decision on a devolution deal to the North East that they had originally agreed to. Their chief concern is that they no longer think that the deal offers ‘genuine devolution’ or represents a fair funding outcome.
While no one would pretend that the deals currently on offer are perfect, or that it remains unaffected by the Government changing the rules, it’s important to remember that devolution is a journey, not an event. The deals currently on the table for places offer a the first step in the reversal of decades of centralisation in Whitehall, and offer the North East the prospect of finally being able to shape policies around skills and transport to address the specific challenges and opportunities that they face.
That it is the first step is the most crucial thing to note. As we’ve said before, the office of the Mayor of London has considerably expanded its remit since its introduction in 2000. And last week’s Budget marked the latest broadening of the Manchester devolution deal – the fourth round of devolution to the city region – with the handing down of criminal justice powers.
The rapid progress made by Manchester has raised another grumble across the North – that it is getting preferential treatment. But to say as much is to miss the point. Not only has Manchester’s pragmatic approach reversed the centralisation of power, it has also allowed it to go back to Whitehall to ask for more, succeeding in getting powers that originally were refused. Other city regions should look to Greater Manchester as an example of how quickly devolution deals can be improved once an initial agreement is made, and consider that the alternative is likely to be no devolution at all.
The concerns that too many decisions are taken in London are decades old. Now, finally, a number of our city regions have an opportunity to do something about it. For the good of their economies, and the people they represent, they should take full advantage of it.
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