There is nothing new about English devolution being couched in economic terms, particularly as the UK Government has pinned the devolution agenda in England firmly to the spatial framework of city regions.
What is remarkable is that, under May’s premiership, there is a growing tendency for the UK Government to talk about English devolution in exclusively economic terms. An early warning of this approach came in the February 2017 Brexit White Paper, where the Government asserts its commitment to “devolving greater powers to local government where there is economic rationale to do so”. In the Industrial Strategy White Paper, the Government enthuses about the prospect of further devolution “enhancing the business environment locally” and “driving productivity”. MHCLG’s Single Departmental Plan, which outlines the Ministry’s priorities and was most recently updated on 23 May 2018, only refers to devolution in the ‘Grow Local Economies’ section.
Local government should be concerned by this kind of language. By highlighting only the economic impact of devolution in public documents, the Government gives the impression that it is not interested in the social well-being benefits that devolution can bring to communities.
There are three points to make in response. First, economic policies always have social outcomes, even though these are not always explicitly stated in devolution deals. One example of this in a current deal is the agreement between the West of England Combined Authority and DWP to co-design the new National Work and Health Programme: the key outcomes are listed as “reduce unemployment and move people into sustained employment”, while the potential outcomes for improved mental and physical health for the long-term unemployed living in the combined authority area are not mentioned. It would be helpful if the Government could do more to recognise significant social outcomes of devolution agreements in the wording of future deals.
Second, existing devolution deals already contain freedoms and flexibilities in policy areas not directly related to economic growth. Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s health and social care deal is the trailblazer in this regard, but another good example emerging from Cornwall’s devolution deal is the Warm and Well Cornwall fuel poverty programme, which will install free efficiency measures in over 1,000 homes using expensive or ineffective heating by January 2019. Cornwall Council’s Deputy Leader, Cllr Julian German, commented: “The Devolution Deal has had a part to play in this much needed scheme. New ways of delivering insulation improvements to Cornish homes agreed with the Government means we have more control over the decisions on which homes can receive this support.”
Third, devolution is a logical policy response to the current zeitgeist, which is encapsulated in the ‘take back control’ narrative that dominated the run-up to the referendum on the UK’s EU membership. People now demand and expect a greater say in the political decisions that affect their day-to-day lives. The Government recognises in the Industrial Strategy White Paper that national ‘one-size-fits-all’ policies are no longer appropriate to address the challenges and build on the strengths of specific places in the UK. But it would be a mistake only to consider devolving greater autonomy and responsibility over policy areas promoting economic development when the issues people care about also include the NHS and wider public service delivery in their area. Given the variations in demographics and connectivity across England, it would be strange if the Government did not explore the wider devolution of health budgets and greater revenue-raising powers for local authorities as potential responses to the Industrial Strategy Grand Challenge on ‘ageing society.’
Although there is no suggestion that the Government does not appreciate the social benefits of devolution for communities in England, it would be constructive if the Government’s public pronouncements did not frame devolution as a solely economic policy lever. If such language continues, the danger is that English local authorities might be discouraged from tabling proposals that do not relate directly to economic growth but would make a meaningful and positive difference to people’s lives in future devolution negotiations.