Perhaps the surest sign that devolution has emerged, bleary-eyed but purposeful, from a wonkish backwater into the political mainstream is the emergence of a backlash.
Academics and activists have long expressed concerns that the combined authority, city-region model of governance could take power further away from the people it serves, with a perceived elite negotiating ‘deals’ behind closed doors. Ever ahead of the game, Greater Manchester has seen the backlash hit first, with its controversial appointment of a ‘shadow’ Mayor and fledging effort to integrate a health system perceived as ‘national’ with social care raising some hackles.
The increasing national prominence of devolution, most recently embodied in the Chancellor’s announcement on business rates, has seen these criticisms become more prominent. Recent weeks have seen the People’s Assembly incorporate Devo Manc into their carnival of protest and debate around the Conservative Party Conference, the ever-reliable Polly Toynbee dismissing the policy shift as a ‘savage con’, and – most dishearteningly – Her Majesty’s Opposition seeking to defeat the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill against the wishes of its own city leaders.
There are certainly legitimate criticisms to be made of the current approach to devolution: centrally controlled, accompanied by an aggressive fiscal agenda and urgently requiring underpinning with effective local scrutiny, accountability and participation. Those who have spoken out for a better way of doing things are almost without exception well-intentioned, locally knowledgeable and fundamentally correct. Yet criticism also needs to be channelled to where it can be most constructive. Those focusing their energies on the democratic deficit and inherent unevenness in the deal process itself need to take a long, hard look at the centralist status quo – with its indirectly elected executive, siloed departmental empires and web of unaccountable agencies and quangos – and ask themselves: do you seriously think that these deals aren’t an improvement?
Rather than invoking reactionary sentiment around the fear of change, people serious about winning power for communities should focus on shaping the change itself. We can, and should, continue to push for constitutional change as Jon Trickett and others on the Labour front bench have advocated, while doing our best to make incremental change work. Indeed, it is only by doing the latter that we make the former possible: liberating the idea of a new constitutional settlement from the ivory tower in which it has long languished, bringing it first into the realms of political possibility and then political necessity.
So what can be done to open up the devolution process? The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill offers a great chance to address some of the concerns being expressed, and some sterling work has already been done across parties in the Lords. Scrutiny has been a major focus of the debate on the legislation to date, underlining the fact that backbench councillors are amongst those potentially feeling disempowered by the nature and speed of the ‘deal’ process, as recently acknowledged by Oldham Council leader Jim McMahon.
Increasingly, a traditional approach to scrutiny will not be adequate to cover the breadth of often novel activity, across organisations and budgets, that will be taking place in a devolved landscape. The idea of local Public Accounts Committees – floated by the Centre for Public Scrutiny and adopted by Labour for its 2015 manifesto – is an idea whose time has come, enabling a true shift towards being able to open up public spending across a place to scrutiny and accountability. Returning to ideas such as this offers a route for Labour to engage in constructive opposition, rather than attempting wrecking amendments.
Perhaps more ambitious politically is the push – championed in the Lords by Liberal Democrat former leader of Newcastle City Council Lord Shipley and others – for a more representative voting system in local government. Ending first past the post for local elections, while presenting less of a risk to the national establishment than the same shift in national elections, could nonetheless have profound impacts. It would enable a far greater diversity of views and debate to proliferate at local level and a greater proportion of people to feel confident that their views were being represented – particularly given the widespread concerns about too much power being vested in an elected Mayor.
But far more could also be done locally outside existing legislation to use the devolution agenda to tackle disempowerment and distrust. Again there is ample scope for those with doubts about the process to bring forward specific, credible proposals.
To take one burning example, the potential role of participatory budgeting in helping to set the broad financial envelope in which decisions are made is made all the more pertinent by the limited tax-raising powers announced by the Chancellor around business rates. Conventional consultation on budgets and services often leaves people disillusioned by the dissonance between their response (‘no cuts!’) and the decisions that end up being implemented. Involving people in civic trade-offs and interactions – between different areas of spend, between public expenditure and revenue raising, even between state and crowd sourced solutions – is essential. There is no shortage of international examples of how this can be made to work on an ambitious scale and it is to be hoped that constructive and thoughtful advocates of such an approach in Greater Manchester will gain traction.
Democracy and participation are a critical part of making local autonomy meaningful and useful for people and communities. But we can campaign for and implement them in a way which enhances, rather than threatens, the most successful challenge to our centralised state for a generation. Rather than being used to put the brakes on this power shift, democracy can and must become the wheels that make the deals work.