Devolution or delegation?

More and more colleagues and institutions, it seems, are getting involved in initiatives to assemble compelling propositions to put to the main political parties in an attempt to shape the local government-related policies they will pursue following next year’s general election. Indeed, my own society, SOLACE, is one such body and it has recently initiated a consultation on its alternative ‘manifesto’ (manifesto – how daring of us!) entitled Opportunity Knocks. Turn on; tune in; and sign up. Or something like that.

All this fervent (and, occasionally, febrile) activity is, of course, a ritual courtship with which the various seasoned suitors are wholly familiar and well versed. But it does seem, if only to me, that this time around there is an added je ne sais quoi to spice up the wooing – and this arises from the uncommon context of: a ‘too-close-to-call’ general election; local government tackling the ‘killer cuts’ phase (a trifling £360m more to be saved over the next three years here in Birmingham); a possible, but by no means guaranteed and fully rounded, economic recovery; and a growing recognition, albeit still in its pre-ambulatory infancy, that agglomeration economics (for jobs, health and social care, etc) is the only way forward to achieve well-being and prosperity for all.

So, what to do about this uncommon alignment of the political planets? Well much has already been written – and will be written – and I don’t intend to reprise it (I’d have to have read it all for a start). My focus is on those areas that I would suggest are being overlooked somewhat.

Firstly, with my pedants hat on, can we stop asking Westminster for a devolved settlement and start asking for a delegated one. Much as I love City/Growth Deals, Better Care Funds and all the other bastard offspring of devolution, each remains characterised and constrained by the ongoing and firm attachment of Central Government’s apron strings. What Local Government actually needs is the decentralisation and delegation of relevant policy areas and funding streams – for economic purposes, for health and social care purposes, indeed for everything else too!

Secondly, with the above in mind, we should ramp up the thinking about new ways of working between Central and Local Government. Take local growth teams (an idea, incidentally, that Heseltine is very keen on – see, I have read something). On behalf of the City Council and Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP, I have been arguing for some time that we have to shift the Central-Local Government relationship from one of the former marking the latter’s homework to a situation where we are actually in a proper partnership of equals seeking to deliver our common objectives through our respective roles and expertise. Getting the homework right, first time, together. Radical or what? And this approach should apply to all areas of activity.

Thirdly, can we please move beyond the increasingly prevalent, but simplistic and irritating, narrative that pitches urban areas (Cities/City Regions) against rural areas (Counties/County Regions). Having worked in Solihull for eight years and now getting to grips with Birmingham it is clear to me that that maximising health, wellbeing and prosperity for our citizens relies not on superiority complexes or hierarchical relationships but, as with Central Government, in true and sophisticated partnerships of equals utilising a wide range of interdependent geographies.

There you go. My contribution to the summer silly season. 

Mark

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