My starting position is thus:
I believe the UK is too centralised. I wrote about it almost a year ago in relation to the fallout from the Scottish Referendum: https://go-how.com/2014/10/22/municipal-independence-referendum/.
I also believe that mainly executive, rather than legislative powers, should be more liberally distributed to democratically-elected bodies representing appropriate local or regional geographies. These lower tiers of government would not make laws, but rather policies and budgets to enable them to implement laws and deliver the basic public services which laws have decreed.
Therefore, I was pleased to hear that the Government has received 38 bids from a variety of consortia of County, District, Borough, Combined and Unitary Authorities for devolved powers over policy/service areas including education, healthcare, housing, planning and transport. I was particularly pleased on the last point, as I hope it might mean opportunities for future work for my fledgling enterprise, discussed in my two August blogs: https://go-how.com/2015/08/04/flying-solo/ and https://go-how.com/2015/08/27/my-business-go-how/.
The bids cover the majority of England as well as a few places in Scotland and Wales. There are bids that overlap, where a smaller area has bid on its own and also as part of a larger area. However, when I did a little research, an article published in the Local Government Chronicle http://www.lgcplus.com/news/devolution/exclusive-councils-official-devolution-bids-revealed/5090012.article about who did not bid, did not want to bid, surprised me most: Berkshire, the County that no longer exists, comprised of six absurdly-bounded Unitary Authorities, one of which I call home and another of which was my employer for eight years. What was even more surprising than the County’s unique decision not to bid, now or later, was the reason given by the chair of the Berkshire Leaders’ Group: They were not confident that a devolution deal for the county would be “earth shattering”.
I doubt Chancellor Osbourne intends any of the devolution deals to be “earth shattering”, but the Berkshire Leaders are probably thinking that they simply can’t improve on what they already have or have been given. Berkshire has a thriving economy, high median house prices, and, compared to many other areas, a relatively well-off, healthy and well-educated population. In the eight years I have lived and worked here, we have seen substantial public and private inward investment. Major transport projects in the Reading urban area and Wokingham alone have included:
- Reading Station and the surrounding viaducts, signals, interchanges, etc worth almost £1billion;
- Major remodelling of motorway junctions;
- Wokingham’s new railway station buildings and Station Link Road;
- A number of ‘pinch point’ projects, including major maintenance work on Reading Bridge; and
- £25 million from the Local Sustainable Transport Fund for the Reading urban area and Wokingham.
The last is my particular pride, as LSTF formed a large proportion of my day job for years, from writing the initial bid documents to launching public cycle hire, a key project, in June 2014. Other key projects are Mereoak Park and Ride (opened 17 August) and the new pedestrian-cycle bridge over the Thames (opening this week).
The point is, can Berkshire do any better with devolution? Probably not, unless they had significant tax and spend powers to keep the wealth the area generates. That’s not George Osbourne’s plan, although Hampshire is proposing to retain business rates. We’ll see if they convince the Treasury to let them.
Which brings us to another point; all bids must be approved and agreed in Westminster. Would Berkshire manage to get a decent slice of the new pie when it had such a large slice of the old one? Perhaps not, and certainly not if they can’t come up with a convincing source of accountability similar to the city mayor ideal. Considering Berkshire’s patchwork political complexion, that would be difficult.
Which brings us to the last point, so aptly argued by Centre for Cities blogger, Ben Harrison. Namely, what is a sensible area to attach executive powers to? Is Berkshire? Would a mayor of metropolitan Reading be a better idea, although it’s a political pipe dream?
So are the Berkshire leaders right? Is it better not to bid for devolution when details like the geographic area or the financial powers are, well, so devilishly difficult? My final position is yet to be determined.