After months of worry, devolution’s loved ones finally got some news from Dr May.
The patient, it turns out, isn’t terminal, but sadly there will be no return to the old, vibrant ways. Devolution has suffered ‘life-changing injuries’.
The policy that once formed the centrepiece of Conservative thinking was not absent from yesterday’s manifesto but you had to read closely to find it. It appeared not in its own section but as a brief paragraph in the part dedicated to the Union. There, we were told that the goal is to “consolidate” given that “devolution is now established”. That would mean “providing clarity on what devolution means for different administrations so all authorities operate in a common framework”.
While many in local government will welcome any streamlined replacement for the uncertain process of devo deal-making, I suspect more than a few jaws will have dropped at the suggestion that devolution is essentially a done deal ready to move into a consolidating phase. The language used suggests that far from being the flagship, buccaneering policy devolution once was, it is essentially being bureaucratised: powers and funds will be available for those authorities that jump through the right hoops but the likelihood is that said powers and funds will only extend so far and no further. Devolution is now a matter for civil servants not ministers.
The detail of the industrial strategy offered potentially greater hope. Combined authorities, mayoralties and local enterprise partnerships will lead their own local industrial strategies. “Wherever possible,” the manifesto said, “growth funding will be delivered through these organisations”. But again the language is important: it suggests a primarily co-ordinating rather than a designing function for local partnerships. And just so no-one was left in any doubt, those local industrial strategies will be expected to be “in alignment with (the) national industrial strategy”.
Add to this the fact that the strong commitment to business rates retention in the 2015 manifesto has disappeared from this document to be replaced by a vaguer review and it is clear that the cooling on devolution, which many had sensed since May took over, is now official.
This shift creates a set of new imperatives for councils.
Firstly, and most obviously, local government must push hard to shape the new devolution framework to make it as straightforward and as ambitious as possible. Then, when it is in place, it must be used aggressively, crucially building a wide base of public support for bids.
Secondly, another clue on the future of devolution is the manifesto’s treatment of Brexit. By contrast with the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos there is no clear commitment to devolve repatriated powers. This is something councils need to start making a much louder noise about.
Finally, and most importantly, local government needs to develop a model of impact for itself that is not so reliant on the whims of central government. The truth is that, with or without devolved powers, councils have to keep reinventing themselves for the 21st century. They are uniquely placed to be change leaders for their areas, shifting values and behaviours towards greater creativity, collaboration and self-determination. Securing that role could be just as transformative as securing money and freedoms from Whitehall.