The devolution agenda, like every policy, has its share of critics within politics, the policy world and academia. Yet there is a growing danger that we hold devolution to a higher standard than almost any other area of policy.
Given the institutional resistance that remains within central government to devolution, soon all of those engaged in the agenda must make a choice: secure imperfect change now with a view to building on it in the years ahead, or be complicit in locking in the status quo for at least another decade.
Not even the biggest devolution enthusiast, or Conservative party supporter, would argue that the government’s approach in this area has been perfect. Every deal should be open to scrutiny and, if appropriate, amendment. Critical analysis and constructive opposition within the policy development process is vital.
Yet when one reviews the most common reasons cited for stopping the devolution deals in their tracks, it is far from clear that they represent reasonable grounds to oppose or hold back change.
For example, some have called for the government’s devolution programme to be less “top down” and more structured. There is clearly a significant inconsistency here. Applying structure to a process necessitates imposing boundaries and rules on what can and can’t be done, and when it can and can’t be done by. Is it reasonable to criticise the government for being too “top down” in specifying the governance model and timetable for devolution, and not structured enough, by putting the emphasis on places coming forward with their own proposals for how, given these restrictions, devolution could work for them?
After all, the fact remains that in a state as centralised as the UK, where power is virtually entirely concentrated within Whitehall, there is no wholly “bottom-up” way of moving that power down to a local level, outside of an armed insurrection: the nature of devolution will be determined by those who possess that power in the first instance.
And when it comes to applying more structure to the process, variations in economic and political geography, as well as institutional knowledge and capacity across the country, mean that devolution will inherently mean different things to different areas, and will progress at different speeds.
Equally, many continue to argue that, in order to be valid, devolution doesn’t only need to encourage greater levels of public and civic participation: it should itself actually be initiated and shaped by a more engaged citizenry. Clearly more can and should be done to encourage local people to consider how their place can make the most of devo deals in the months ahead.
But a lack of public engagement or understanding hardly marks devolution out against the rest of public policy, including in areas like crime, health and welfare that impact people’s daily lives far more regularly. Ultimately, British politics as a whole suffers from a lack of voter engagement between elections. Devolution will be a means through which to improve that – but is it really reasonable to oppose devolution deals going ahead because they display symptoms of a malaise that spreads much wider?
The truth is, there will never be a perfect way of delivering devolution – it is necessarily messy, and like all things involving political power, motives will be questioned, interests defended, and winners and losers proclaimed. Similarly, there is no way of knowing for sure what the journey towards a more devolved system will look like in practice, or even what the ultimate destination will look like. That is the nature of big reforms in a complex and ever changing world, and is as true for devolution as it is in the health service, education or defence.
And all of this matters – because there is nothing inevitable about devolution in the UK. It remains a battleground between a powerful majority who, either for philosophical, political or institutional reasons wish to keep things as they are, versus a relatively small number of advocates who want to see change because they believe it will bring benefits to communities across the country.
We are now reaching a point where a judgement must be made. In order to secure devolution, are we willing to accept imperfect change that takes us closer to where we want to get to and allows us to go further in the years ahead? Or will we be complicit in ensuring the UK remains the most centralised country in the developed world?
Ben Harrison is director of communications & development at the Centre for Cities.
This article was originally published on the think tank's blog.