As the devolution train gathers further steam, the North West must beware rushing towards an unsatisfactory ‘devo-max’ settlement that it could be stuck with for generations to come.
That was the stark warning from a conference at Manchester Business School which brought together leading academic and business voices under the banner ‘making devolution work’.
Keynote speaker John Tomaney from University College London said the way that devolution was implemented mattered in terms of the kinds of outcomes you can expect.
“Devolution comes with potential costs and benefits and it is worth considering what they are. By devolving powers you can target public policy much better and ultimately improve economic performance. But the threat is that in the pursuit of more joined-up and targeted public policies you could end up with just another set of technocratic solutions to what are essentially deeply political problems. You might just end up creating new unaccountable elites.”
Tomaney said the US experience had been particularly influential in terms of current UK government thinking, and in terms of the powers that its mayors yield. He said the debate about whether there should be referenda for metro mayors in the UK was an important one, but one also needed to ask where the mandate for these changes came from.
“The impact of devolution is dependent on the way it is designed. Devolution can be designed in a way that extends democracy, but it can also be designed in ways that concentrates powers in undemocratic ways. We need to reset the northern powerhouse debate in the context of a much wider debate about what we mean by regional development, and what kind of regional development we are seeking to achieve and whom we expect to benefit.”
Event co-organiser Karel Williams, Professor of Accounting and Political Economy at MBS and from the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), said the idea that “one more push” with bog standard economic policies would somehow help close the economic gap between UK regions was wishful thinking, and called for more creative and constructive thinking.
“Old policies are exceedingly unlikely to help close the gap. There are a whole series of questions about where we are at and about the hopes attached to devolution. For instance, perhaps the major structural issue with devolution are borrowing powers which are not going to be ceded by the Treasury without a massive fight. If they are ceded that simply opens up a second point of conflict.”
Neil McInroy from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, said there was no point in devolution unless Westminster changed its “attitude, style, behaviour and ways of governing”.
“We need to deepen and broaden the conversation around devolution. This is undoubtedly a devolution ‘moment’, but there are fears in that. All of us need to grapple with the opportunity that is there. Devolution is not a gift from the centre, it lies at the very heart of what democracy should be about, namely passing power to the people.”
McInroy said although there were economic issues to deal with, there was also debate around how devolution played into local social issues. “What is the point of devolution if it doesn’t bring a social dividend?”