Putting devolution and place at the heart of decision-making
By Christian Spence – Head of Research & Policy
Devolution is a word which inherently makes people feel comfortable. It is natural to feel that decisions made more closely to where you live or work will inherently be better than those made from somewhere more remote. If it means anything, it speaks to being personally better connected to, or better able to influence, the people or institutions that take decisions that affect your life. But, for decades, this has not been how local government works in the UK. The UK is one of the most centralised developed economies, with local authorities having little control over their own budgets or even decision making, with Whitehall mostly dictating to town halls the services that they must provide and how money should be spent.
But, when the past few years have seen lots more powers being devolved from Westminster to our local town halls, does any of this matter? In short, we believe it does. We have been supportive of the measures introduced since 2009 to allow greater decision-making locally, where we know that greater knowledge of our needs and opportunities exists. Since George Osborne gave birth to the idea of the Northern Powerhouse, Greater Manchester has seen a number of deals with central government that have given it greater control over transport, housing, skills, spatial planning and others, in exchange for having a directly-elected mayor. Two weeks ago, Andy Burnham was elected to that position, bringing a powerful figurehead to the city region in a mould similar to that of the mayor of London.
This is an enormous step forward in a relatively short amount of time, and we welcome the achievements in getting this far, but this must be seen as only the first step. The powers that areas like Greater Manchester have gained through their combined authorities and mayors must continue to increase and, crucially, these must come with adequate resources to allow for their successful deployment. The policies of the coalition government from 2010 saw local government income from Whitehall halved, and the ability for local areas to raise additional revenue to support projects and schemes remains close to zero. If devolution is to be something real, and not just decentralisation, then local areas must be given greater fiscal control.
This is easily said, and hard to deliver, but business can play a crucial role in supporting its development. We have long campaigned for a stronger, more direct democratic role for the business community in local governance; our conversations with business show that together the sector is more pragmatic than many politicians believe. The success and variety of business improvement districts across the UK (and we have a growing number here in GM) show that business is prepared to contribute to its local economies and communities, providing that their voice is heard and that they can shape the programmes that they are supporting.
The time has come to further stretch the apron strings that connect local areas to Whitehall. Our town halls across the country must be freed to make more decisions locally, their business communities must be engaged at the heart of the debate and, as taxpayers, we must ensure that their voice is heard as loudly as that of citizens, but we must also ensure that the resources needed to make this a success are also available. If Whitehall is not prepared to transfer those to us, then we must be empowered to create our own.
For more information on GM Chamber’s Campaign for Business 2017 and the asks for further devolution, see our Resources page.
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