big ben

Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s Institute for Public Policy) reflects on what the story behind the budget means for devolution:

One of the big claims by the Conservative Government has been their willingness to devolve services and decision making to local decision makers.

The full story of the underlying motivations over the Northern Powerhouse – the shift to city regions and the bringing together of both services and major infrastructure initiatives into local oversight through an elected mayor – has yet fully to be told. Partly because it is a work in progress but also because some of the key decision makers are too close to their public positions and are unlikely or unwilling to discuss why they are in favour of what is (potentially) a radical restructuring of decision making in England.

At the moment the off stage critiques are familiar. The Tories don’t really mean it and anyway, we have a good working system. Or they are using it to mask further spending cuts or this is a chance to change how business is done or regional decentralisation had never worked. In one sense all of the above are possibly true.

It seems to me that the both the budget and the EU referendum remind us that the Government and the political party behind it are far from united. We should not underestimate the internal conflict within the ruling party. And I suspect that we are a long way from seeing or even grasping how their internal conflicts are likely to be resolved.

My own guess is that post referendum result (whatever the result) the conflict will continue for a long time to come. In the short term it will begin to render the Government unable to function properly. Remember the 1990s and John Major? Why does all of this matter? Because there were and are some really significant things happening on the devolution front.

The big picture are the cuts in social and education services and the impact of further cuts in health. Two immediate consequences: worsening services for the most vulnerable and increasing pressure on those who manage and work in these services. And a third consequence for local politicians: much less room to manoeuvre if you want to invest. A further medium term impact: growing opposition amongst community or professional groups and pressure on elected politicians to resist making further cuts.

At the same time infrastructure spend over the medium term is planned to grow. And the ‘idea’ of the Northern Powerhouse as a counter weight to London and the South East grows. Already members of the Labour Party are considering who might be the elected mayor of Greater Manchester. It is clearly seen by some as a role to go for.

Whilst these are all important developments, they are essentially the public story. What’s the scope for responding to the present context and looking to innovate or at least to stop merely responding?

It’s here, I think, that there remains lots to explore. Almost by going ‘under the radar’ we should be looking to see how to develop what we gave and to see the spaces for change or innovation. It’s these spaces of change that I think we need to look for. What they might be and how we might use them will be the subject of future discussions here.

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