In this interview with the Guardian, George Osborne does make some good points about the importance of devolution, and does seem to be genuinely committed to giving more powers away from Whitehall, even to the extent of giving some local authorities more control over the purse strings. Sure, it’s not full devolution or a commitment to proper federalism, but when it’s compared to Eric Pickles’ vision of localism – where you’re locally free to decide how much you agree with him – it’s a refreshing change.
However, all that’s tempered by his devotion to a single model of devolution – combined authorities (usually as ‘city regions’) with elected mayors. I’ve written before about the problems caused by combined authorities in that they’re just adding another level of bureaucracy to an already confusing system of local governance and not making things any easier or more democratic.
However, in the light of some of the rhetoric from the election campaign, I’m still confused by the way Osborne – and so much of Whitehall – is continuing to push elected mayors, despite the fact that people have consistently rejected them. We hear howls of protest whenever it’s suggested that the SNP might consider having another independence referendum in Scotland in the next few years, on the grounds that last September settled the issue for a generation. Apparently, though, the people of English cities aren’t allowed to have the same decisive say over how they want to run their affairs. People want more power locally, and to insist that they can only have that power if they agree to Whitehall’s way of running things – a directly elected model of sole power that doesn’t apply nationally – is to get devolution wrong from the start. It shouldn’t be about regions conforming to what the centre wants to get power, it should be about them claiming the powers they need to use in the way they decide is best.
Insisting on a single way of doing things is the Treasury’s way of asserting and remaining in control through any devolution process. Insisting on something the people have already rejected because Whitehall knows best is anti-democratic and undermines the whole purpose of devolution from the start.