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19 June 2024

Liberate the regions

The government must empower regional mayors and place devolution at the core of its plans.

By Katy Shaw

Devolution presents the biggest opportunity but also the biggest challenge for any incoming government. Under Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, the development of mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) in England has been fast. The 2022 Gordon Brown Commission report on the future of the nation advised Keir Starmer to “complete the map” on devolution by tasking all areas to adopt combined authority status. Yet early noises from Starmer’s shadow Labour team suggest a slower approach to decentralisation could be on the way – or worse, an emergency stop on the transfer of power to the regions. A decision must be made: does Labour press on with devolution or not?

The wheeler-dealer framework currently used for negotiating new devolution deals has led to an uneven distribution of resource and responsibility between MCAs across England. This has created a new generation of mayors who are eager for more powers but lack the organisational capacity, capital expenditure and staff expertise to deliver a diverse portfolio of commitments from skills to housing, transport to culture.

Despite a flurry of so-called trailblazer deals and a new cohort of (almost exclusively Labour) mayors, the country remains prohibitively overcentralised economically and with respect to infrastructure. This makes it inefficient to implement policies. It has also alienated private investors who cannot fathom the labyrinthine networks and opaque structures of accountability that criss-cross local and central government.

How to staff and lead MCAs is another challenge. In theory, local authorities and MCAs should operate in a Brady Bunch style of enthusiastic consent around shared decision-making. In practice, MCAs are busy creaming off the best staff from their local authorities, leaving bottomed-out council provision and a talent pipeline full of sustainability holes. Devolution deals are 30-year settlements: the pressing question of who we are training to establish them – and how we train them – determines their success.

To save the nation, a new government must put devolution at the core of its programme. The incoming administration should empower their mayors with new statutory and constitutional guarantees. By committing to complete the decentralisation of England by 2035 they can create new local authorities and support existing ones. Through establishing a new Council of Nations and Regions – chaired by the prime minister and comprised of the mayors and the leaders of our other devolved nations – a Labour government can create better policy. Better governance of devolved powers cannot be achieved by central bodies, but by a new system of regional peer assurance and best-practice sharing, with gateway reviews of good, satisfactory or outstanding performance to identify and profile excellence, or to highlight problems.

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So many of the institutions that define our country are close to collapse – devolution can save them. Cultural and creative industries remain stubbornly centred in the south-east. Culture is a core part of devolution deals. It is the quickest lever a future government can pull for levelling up within the regions, but it will not be effective without incentives to decentralise.

Everything achieved by the English devolution revolution to date could be supercharged or stymied by the incoming government. The challenge lies in rejecting conventional approaches, incentivising collaboration and slicing through siloed systems and top-down targets that know little and care less of life away from Westminster. Devolution can drive alternative models for growth and apply local learning at a national level. The country is ready for a change: in scale and scope, approach and attitude. And that starts with shifting where power lies.

This article is part of the series “How to fix a nation

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