Devolution with a small d – Reflections on our Conservative Party fringe event

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Our event in Birmingham was a much more subdued affair than the previous one in Liverpool for the Labour party conference. Chaired again by Dr Adam Marshall (Acting Director General at the British Chamber of Commerce) he opened with a show of hands from the audience, asking if they supported the move to mayors and if they would help the local area, and there was a much less positive response from this audience.

Although we couldn’t get the recently announced West Midlands candidate, Andy Street, we did hear from one of the frontrunners to be the Tory candidate for Greater Manchester Sean Anstee. He appeared along with the leader of Bath and North East Somerset Council and the deputy leader from North Lincolnshire, two areas that are likely to have metro mayors as part of their devolution deals. Interestingly they emphasised economic development and housing even more than their Labour counterparts. All were keen on the devolution agenda but less so on the new metro mayors being created; interesting reflections on the Conservative party approach. Probably summed up by a panel comment “Someone will go to the broom cupboard and realise we have given all these powers away… and why do we need ministers?”

While the Labour event was standing room only, with even John Prescott showing up, the Tory one was less popular. New metro mayors potentially have greater appeal to a Labour party which dominates city and urban power bases already, and mayors may enable greater power to flow from Westminster. But the discussion also laid bare how different the issues and the scope of devolution is to those in more rural areas, compared to those from the big metropolitan cities. Highlighting how lack of a large city base in the devolved geography can weaken the case and highlights the absence of critical mass.

This also led to a different panel discussion. Rather than the bullishness of the big city banter at the Liverpool fringe, the discussion was more reflective and contemplative of the nature of devolution; with a small d. The fragile nature of collaborative competition and co-ordination and how to avoid a race to the bottom or being lost in the whirlwind of big city posturing, dominated the event’s rhetoric. Here the issue is cannibalism, as big cities get more powerful how will smaller devolution work and protect the hollowing out further of other more remote areas.

The debate did turn to the ‘preoccupation with governance’ which devolution has created, and to ‘how do we engage the wider public’ in this (potentially) seismic change. Unfairly (I think), the devolution negotiations are perceived as being behind closed doors. The lack of communication is more often than not a reflection of the speed at which places are being asked to work. And frankly the nature of what’s happing means that governance has to be tackled quickly so that the devolution policy is both fair and democratic. The question is ‘will new mayors be able to effectively communicate the intricacies of issues such as fiscal devolution in a post-Brexit environment, and is it actually necessary?

Another overwhelming issue of the two events was the ‘male, pale and stale’ nature of the rising stars in the devolution agenda. Against the tide, it was good to see Beverley Nielsen at our Birmingham event, as one of the few women in the local devolution race, representing the Liberal Democrats and making a strong statement attending the Conservative fringe. She asked about how devolution can bring home grown success, which the panel didn’t really have an answer to; but if we are to learn anything about the last few months, this is a key question mayors need to answer. How does devolution and mayoral responsibility for a place ensure people thrive? How does local success balance the books of places? How do we ensure places are thriving, not just surviving, in such turbulent times? It’s a challenge for all of us involved in the devolution debate to consider.

Sean Anstee raised the need for credible research and evidence for decision making, and to ensure it, work @CityREDI will be exploring these and many more questions about devolution and city growth in the run up to the mayoral election. Follow our blog posts and twitter to keep up to date.

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