British politics has entered a state of flux unprecedented in recent times: with the country having voted to leave the EU, a new leader of the Conservative party to be elected by the end of August, a new government to be formed shortly thereafter, and the prospect of a General Election before the year is out.
Add to these factors an opposition in turmoil and renewed calls for independence in Scotland and Wales, and everything that we thought we knew about the policy agenda for the remainder of the Parliament has been thrown up into the air. That leaves big questions hanging over the future of city-region devolution.
As has been well documented, major devolution to English city-regions has been primarily driven by the chancellor George Osborne, a key figure in the current government, but one whose future is now far from clear.
The experience of the last six years is that the active commitment of the most senior figures in government is required to make significant progress on devolving substantial powers from the centralised UK state. With the chancellor having ruled himself out of the running to be the new Conservative leader, it is difficult at this stage to assess how big a priority devolution will be for other candidates.
This picture is complicated further by the prospect of a general election before the end of 2016. Many, from across the political spectrum, are suggesting it is highly likely that the new government will seek a mandate of its own, particularly with regards the negotiated exit from the European Union.
The implications of an early election for delivering existing policy commitments on devolution should not be underestimated. With recess approaching, even a short campaign in the autumn could delay or de-rail the already ambitious timeline for holding metro mayor elections in May next year, irrespective of who emerges victorious, or on what manifesto.
Given how difficult the political negotiations have been to secure the current devolution deals – between national and local government, and between Conservative and Labour politicians – it is also far from clear whether the various actors involved will be able to resist the diverging pressures placed upon them to either pause, or walk away from, agreements until after polling day.
Nor is it clear how big a role devolution would play in the policy platforms of an early election. Not only are the positions of the Conservative candidates for leader unclear, we mustn’t forget that Labour is currently undergoing a political crisis of its own. The national party’s position on devolution may have been uncertain to this point, but it is now frankly impossible to say what kind of policies they would put forward for any snap election in 2016, let alone speculate regarding their chances of winning.
Indeed, even when the Conservatives and Labour have settled the questions regarding their leadership, it is easy to imagine a scenario whereby – politically and practically – the focus for both parties shifts to how powers can be repatriated from Brussels to Westminster, rather than devolved from Westminster to cities and city regions across the country.
Reasons to be cheerful
Yet despite the shadows hanging over the devolution agenda, the nature of the political crises facing the country mean its successful delivery has never been more important.
Take the need to restore trust in UK politics – if the vote to leave the EU was in part driven by a disconnect between large parts of the country and the political establishment in Westminster, then delivering stronger, democratically accountable leadership for places can be a trigger to re-engage more people in the political process.
Or, consider how we tackle the longstanding economic challenges facing many parts of the country, and which the EU referendum results have shone a fresh light on. Clearly, devolution alone can’t solve these issues. But ensuring more decisions over the things that make a real difference to local economies and people’s day to day lives – like skills, housing and transport – are taken at the level at which the economy actually works, can play a vital part in improving the life chances of people in those places yet to fully recover from the de-industrialisation of the 1970s. This should help to drive more investment, job creation and wage growth in the future.
There can be no doubt that the turmoil currently engulfing British politics means that delivering city-region devolution will be more challenging than ever. Some who previously supported the Government’s devolution agenda are now calling for a radical re-think – either to change the nature of devolution, or to make it even more ambitious.
Of course conversations about the future of devolution should continue. But allowing the progress made to date on devolution to be paused or worse, scrapped altogether – even if the ambition is to go further in pushing power down – would be a huge mistake. Given the political uncertainties and constraints on political capital and capacity that we face, the best bet of securing real change in the future is for the deals currently on the table to be consolidated and delivered as planned, and for the important work of establishing new, democratically accountable institutions at the city region level to continue.
Periods of crisis demand calm leadership. Now is not the time to go back to the drawing board on devolution, but for those at the national and the local level to renew their determination to drive power down from Whitehall in the years ahead.
Ben Harrison is director of communications at the Centre for Cities. This article was originally published on the think tank’s blog.