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Ever since Sunday’s YouGov poll, the certainty expressed by so many in Westminster that the Scottish referendum was definitely going to be a ‘no’ has been shaken to its foundations – and the ramifications of a ‘yes’ vote are starting to be seriously considered. For PMQs to be cancelled and the three party leaders to go up in a show of togetherness (without campaigning together, of course) is a demonstration of how concerned they are. The Prime Minister’s plea that a ‘yes’ vote should not be used to give the ‘effing Tories’ a kick is also a significant acknowledgement of the resentment felt by many in Scotland about being governed by a party that they did not vote for (there is only one Conservative MP in Scotland).
Whatever the final result next week – and that is entirely up to the Scots to decide – there will certainly be more powers and freedoms on offer to Scotland, and in fairly short order. Gordon Brown’s commitment to agree further powers for Scotland by St Andrew’s day (30th November) and to have the draft laws in place by Burns’ Night (25th January), to which the other parties have signed up, represents a breakneck speed at which more powers will be given to Scotland. It already has far more than other parts of the UK (see our briefing here) and this is only set to continue.
It seems that, whatever the result of the referendum, more powers will go to Scotland. But as politicians and civil servants finalise the details, whether it’s a yes or a no, they need to be mindful of some of the challenges.
First, there’s a risk whether it’s ‘yes’ or ‘no’ that all additional powers will go to Holyrood, with Scottish cities losing powers and the ability to adapt policies to local needs. This would be concerning as Scottish cities are so important to the Scottish economy, but each needs different types of investment to thrive (more details to follow in a blog next week). It’s notable that despite their importance, cities have scarcely featured in visions for an independent / more devolved Scotland.
Second, it will be impossible to have an independent / more powerful Scotland without a debate about what happens to the rest of the country. Already there are conversations about what this means for England. My concern is that the focus has primarily been on more power for English regions – yet no institutions exist at that level any longer. On the other hand, city region institutions are thriving, ready to make use of additional powers and the level at which the economy operates. As conversations continue about the ‘English question’, it will be vital to have a proper debate about what this means for England and to ensure that any devolved powers are neither too centralised (so continue to reside in Whitehall) nor go to a level of governance that no longer exists.
Third, there’s a very real risk for cities in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland that, whatever the results of the referendum, Whitehall civil servants will be tied up for months making the changes happen, with consequent delays for all kinds of other policies, not least investment in a range of policies and programmes that will support growth in the rest of the economy, particularly cities where most of the housing and jobs growth will be.
It’s great to see national politicians waking up to see the passion that greater local control can evoke and the referendum is likely to mean this conversation does not go away (the questions about whether a close ‘no’ will lead to a further referendum in a few years’ time are for another discussion). But there’s a need to ensure that in the rush to ensure that Scotland gets more powers – whether it’s ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – that the importance of cities like Dundee, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow in Scotland to economic growth, prosperity and social outcomes (not to mention major cities in England) does not get lost in the noise.
Cross-posted at CityMetric
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