Recently our cities have been aloud with the disparate voices of devolution. This has risen like a proverbial phoenix from the aftermath of the Scottish referendum vote as the UK Government seeks to respond to criticisms of Whitehall domination of policy and decision making. Consequently, we see distinctive Scottish, English and Welsh expressions of “devo” reflecting both their different trajectories and power in the debate. In the English case the political imperative needs to redress the loss of regional autonomy which, when compared to the powerhouse of London, seems somewhat ironic given the rhetoric of Big Society and localism that have been defining characteristics of this government since 2010.
This then begs questions about what localism actually meant, means and will mean, given that now the political sound music is having to be reconstructed. Undoubtedly, there is an inherent attraction about our city regions having more power devolved from Whitehall. Raised expectations are everywhere which only makes the rhetoric all the more dangerous if such freedoms are not delivered. Yet within this constructed opportunity space there appears to be only one preset option available to secure the additional monies and power from the central government piggy bank. This ‘managerial’ localism requires an elected mayor and is built upon a combined authorities’ model. However, despite pleas for tax raising revenues as in Scotland, the government have said no emphatically. This suggests a deficit of government trust in this local governance model delivering the kind of localism that they want.
So is this UK government pre-construction of localism fit for purpose? Many of our most pressing problems need strategic solutions where any governance model needs to work with, and across, scales and sectors to address the current disintegrated thinking and strategic planning vacuum that limits success. So the silos of housing, energy, biodiversity, employment growth, infrastructure (grey, blue and green), water management and climate change need better integration. Arguably the combined authorities model may not necessarily be the best fit for these diverse purposes as it appears that it is the money that is doing the talking, with cities scrambling to join in and have a piece of the action.
I certainly do not know or claim to have the answer on what is a complex and multilayered set of problems but it seems somewhat premature to rush hastily into this response when many people already seem dissatisfied and disengaged with our current models of local authority governance. So it is a valid to ask whether merging authorities within a further layer of political complexity through an elected mayor is a recipe for success or a political fudge?
In my mind, there should be a debate about what kind of structures are needed drawing on the lessons (positive and negative) from previous governance frameworks including regional planning. Drawing from our recent research on what successful policy and decision making looks like the primary ingredients revolve around different groups and sectors co-producing solutions rather than engineered political interventions at national and local levels that arguably are seeking to perpetuate, in some cases, discredited power bases. Behind such approaches there is strong leadership quality normally requiring them to operate outside the boundaries of the ‘box’.
Whatever expression takes root there is a major problem with the governance of our cities in the multitude of different geographies crossing the same space making coordination across the different sector priorities unnecessarily complex and largely elusive. So water (catchment management) biodiversity (local nature partnerships) economic development (local enterprise partnerships) planning (local and county/unitary authorities. Perhaps rather than add yet further layers we ought to think about a unifying landscape scale that is most relevant to these concerns ad ‘we’ the public who elect these politicians surely should have a say here. Otherwise I fear we will continue with the very disintegrated policy and public dissatisfaction that has created this political opportunity in the first place. So can I make a plea for our government and local authorities to perhaps consult their publics enabling us all to have a say in the kind of localism that we want rather than what is being allowed.