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Much of the devolution discussion in England between cities and government has been based around the presumption that cities have to prove why powers, flexibilities and resources should be devolved with the decision ultimately taken by central government. And whilst there have been significant benefits of this approach which we have written about before, there have also been some downsides which have implications for how the city devolution agenda evolves in the years ahead.
As we consider where next for the city devolution agenda in England (and indeed in Wales and Scotland) the Silk Commission’s second report which was released a couple of weeks ago made an interesting recommendation about the next phase of Welsh devolution that could also help progress the city devolution agenda.
Silk recommended that the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) move to a ‘reserved powers’ model of devolution to mirror the set-up in Scotland and Northern Ireland. At the moment, the Welsh Assembly legislates on a list of permitted devolved areas, with everything else assumed to remain under the control of UK Parliament: a ‘conferred powers’ model. In comparison, Scotland and Northern Ireland have a reserved powers model, meaning that powers are held by the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly unless they are specifically reserved to the UK Parliament.
Under Silk’s proposals WAG would shift to a similar arrangement in which it would be subject to a list of reserved issues that Westminster would retain control of, probably covering the constitution; macroeconomic policy; foreign affairs; immigration; and defence but beyond these it would be able to legislate on all other issues.
In reaching this recommendation the Silk Commission examined both devolution models and concluded that the reserved powers model is a better system of devolution for the following reasons:
How is this relevant for city devolution? The arguments and benefits set out by Silk for shifting from a conferred powers model (this is what you can do) to a reserved powers model (this is what you can’t do) seem to me to also provide a robust set of principles for guiding city devolution. Specifically they would help shift the onus of responsibility away from cities to prove why powers and resources should be devolved, to Whitehall to prove why they should not. This shift in approach would also have the advantage of revealing the true appetite within cities for devolution.
Cities matters to the nation. If we want more houses, more jobs, more growth, less inequality, higher standards of living, then cities need to be given their head. Their importance to the future success of the UK means the onus shouldn’t only be on cities to prove why they need to control over their future. It should also be on Whitehall to prove why they should not. Adopting a more permissive reserved powers model of devolution could increase the quality and nature of the city devolution debate on all sides.
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