Devolution: Are we heading in the right direction?

Published in The Fabian Review, Labour Conference edition, September 2014

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Northern woman in possession of a Liverpudlian accent, a Labour membership card and – let’s call it a ‘modest’ fortune – must be in favour of devolution.

No doubt, it’s the hot topic. At the time of writing, Scotland is in the grip of referendum fever as it decides whether or not to supersize its Mc’devolution into independence with fries, the Core Cities have collectively launched the One North infrastructure investment proposal, and even the Chancellor has given his blessing to their plans, setting out his ‘Pathway to the Northern Powerhouse’. Well, it’s a step-up from the workhouse.

The Labour line has of course been in support of a ‘No’ vote for Scotland – that we are better together, particularly given that a significant percentage of the left vote sits beyond Hadrian’s wall. Indeed, it has been interesting to see the committed enthusiasm with which Northern – predominantly Labour – politicians and city leaders have been joining the crusades even further northward to extol the virtues of togetherness (presumably whilst penning the One North proposals on the charabanc).

Hailing from the great scouse nation, I can empathise with the argument that there is an impasse; a disconnect; a gaping, yawning chasm between Whitehall and our Scottish brethren. Liverpool, to me and many other natives, feels like a European city. A port-city, a city of art, culture and cosmopolitanism, its resurgence from the heady days of ‘managed decline’ has been underpinned by European investment. Nationally, some people may recoil at the amount of legislation that is determined by Brussels. But given the odds, I think I would rather take my chances with the EU than with the current UK government (human rights, anybody?).

For me, it is not the physical distance that makes the difference. Good and bad decisions can be made at any proximity. It is the quality of democracy that counts. And there’s the rub. Devolution simply cannot work without democracy. Employing an exclusively top-down approach, devolution can only possibly transfer power to a different seat or seats of power. There appears to be a working assumption that that top-level transfer is enough – that devolved power to city hubs would mean fair distribution across the regions – because of course in the sharing, caring golden-glow of provincial Manchester, we’re still popping over the cobbles to borrow sugar from Ena Sharples. Liverpool had a wonderful community spirit, of which I am very proud, but Little House on the Prairie it is not. In practice, even the northern cities have at best established and at worst engrained power structures, cliques and networks at play. There are some big fish in small ponds. And devolution, as it stands, offers a swim without the hook of scrutiny. Even if it is Eric Pickles holding the rod.

‘Although there is growing support for city power, this must be matched by local, and particularly combined authorities doing more to open up their governance and accountability’, writes Ed Cox of IPPR North in The Observer , but where is this accountability to come from with no central scrutiny, a series of (albeit democratically elected) one-party state councils and an electorate so disengaged that only 18% turned out to vote in the 2012 Manchester Central by-election, the lowest by-election turnout since World War 2.

‘If most city leaders outside London reject the directly elected Mayor model, Cox continues, ‘then it is beholden on them to come up with better alternatives. The status quo is not an option’.

Turnout for Liverpool’s Mayoral election was just 31%. Add to that the Police Commissioner election omnishambles with a national average of 15%, and the current consultation tumbleweed (only 4,000 people Greater Manchester – just 0.15% of its population – have bothered with the NHS’s much lauded Healthier Together questionnaire) and the prognosis for democracy looks fairly grim. A pro-active, bottom-up approach to devolution offers an opportunity to re-engage and re-enfranchise our citizens, as the very fabric of our cities.

In fact, the truth universally acknowledged is not far wrong and, dear Reader, I am absolutely in favour of devolution. But for me, the conclusion drawn by Ed Cox, amongst others, is where we should be starting. Devolution needs to be driven from the ground up. Local councils across the country are already working with communities and individuals in the reform public services. These new models fundamentally redefine the traditional narrative of service delivery, moving away from the language of deliverer and consumer, toward co-design, co-production and – ultimately – to empowerment. They are based on mobilisation of human creativity and social capital, distribution of power and resources, and democratisation of accountability. This is devolution in practice.

Devolving – a downward and outward movement, and often figuratively used as the opposite to evolving – strikes me as quite the wrong direction in travel for what is happening in the Northern cities. We are ‘up North’ and are on an upward trajectory. We need to set our own terms, to action devolution rather than passively waiting for ‘the big devolve’ and trade in the Latin downer for its Greek cousin – for democracy – for people power.

Devolution, yes. But demo-lution first.