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Given the amount of space devolution has taken up in political conversations in this Government, we haven’t seen much change for cities. The Greater Manchester Growth Deal is certainly the cornerstone. But as all parties are talking about devolution ahead of the General Election, there’s a real risk that devolution will stay a technocratic policy debate rather than achieving meaningful change for places.
One important reason for this is that devolution has a PR problem. Proponents (myself included) have failed to give a compelling and easy to understand argument for why politicians and – most importantly – the public should buy into it, especially when you get into the detail. While people may like the idea of localism, the detail of devolution quickly starts to sound like a political science lecture rather than something people can relate to.
I attend many events which host well-versed leaders from central and local government and industry, who talk very well and with impressive technical knowledge about how to make devolution work. But despite more and more of these types of events taking place, and the conversation becoming increasingly constructive and cohesive, we have not convinced politicians or the public that devolution will likely give them more of what they want – better functioning local services that meet their needs.
I think this happens for several reasons:
First, devolution is complicated. The evidence for a direct link from devolution to economic growth is mixed, and most people do not know exactly what it means in practice, or for them. The average worker or homeowner is likely to think it will mean higher taxes or fear that their neighbours may start getting something better than them. The economic and political arguments as to why devolution is an imperative are complicated to unpick, and require a certain amount of economic and political knowledge.
Second, devolution isn’t tangible or exciting. Nobody wants to know how the sausage is made. Most people don’t know exactly what their council does. They just want everything to work. We won’t win the devolution movement by explaining to everyone the intricacies of the local government system. We have to find a better way of explaining that places could achieve better outcomes if we change the way things are done.
Third, devolution is new and uncertain. There is substantial evidence that people prefer what they know, called status quo bias. Thus, we need to find a way to introduce more certainty into the conversation. Devolution will always introduce some uncertainty, but the way we talk about it can minimise the risks and fear associated with it.
In the end, we have to recognise that devolution is also about democracy. With the advent of combined authorities and greater power at the local level, we also need increased local accountability. But, this requires the public to be more engaged in the political process and in holding leaders to account.
Changing the conversation around devolution is not going to be easy. The word “devolution” in and of itself does not tend to spark much fervour or emotion with the vast majority of people, even those who believe in it. So, we have a joint responsibility as researchers, politicians, and those working in local government and the business community to talk about the end game of devolution as well as the process. The conversation has to highlight better local services, more homes in unaffordable areas, roads and public transport that get people where they need to go, and a way of promoting the economic strengths of the area to investors and boosting business.
Here at the Centre, we are constantly challenging ourselves to find new ways to articulate the importance of city economies to people’s lives and the future of the national economy. And we invite other think tanks and interested parties to work with us to change the conversation around devolution.
Senior Consultant, City Economics at Arup
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