“Osborne’s legacy is arguably one of centralisation”: so what would real devolution look like?

One of the less discussed side-effects of Brexit has been the complete collapse in the market for photographs of George Osborne in high-vis jackets. Sad. Image: Getty.

Devolution is a great opportunity.  After years of oppressive centralisation, devolution deals offer local authorities a chance to break free and forge their own approaches to economic development.

As it stands, however, the devolution agenda encompasses myriad risks and challenges for local authorities, with city deals characterised by unnecessarily conservative ambitions, a series of policy missteps and, at root, a flawed economic philosophy.

George Osborne was right to push for devolution as forcefully as he did – but his “my way or no way” approach to city deals seriously jeopardised the agenda’s credibility. If new prime minister Theresa May means it when she preaches inclusion and rebalancing, then Osborne’s departure is an opportunity to reset regional policy in a more sustainable direction.

But if devolution is to succeed, several things will have to change, and quickly.

Where Osborne went wrong

Above all, local authorities need to be unshackled from austerity. As I argue in Austerity Politics and UK Economic Policy, local government is perhaps the one area where austerity really has meant austerity, with local public services having been cut to the bone. Devolving depleted budgets is self-defeating.

City deals have to date also focused rather too much on devolving the responsibility to deliver national policy, rather than the responsibility to decide on how best to support local economies. And too often, delivery requires local authorities to outsource the actual administration of, for example, employment support programmes, relying on many of the same firms hitherto contracted by central government.

Osborne’s legacy is arguably one of centralisation rather than decentralisation, especially in relation to fiscal policy. Councils have been permitted to raise the largely regressive council tax – but only if they intend to spend the proceeds on replenishing squeezed adult social care budgets.


Similarly, the government has outlined plans to allow councils to retain all of the business rates revenue raised in their area, but offered very little freedom to redesign the tax, even though rates revenue is intended to replace central grants to local authorities over the medium term. The result will inevitably be greater inequality between areas with a highly developed private sector, and those looking to build one. All the while, much-needed additional borrowing powers for local authorities are nowhere to be seen.

A generous interpretation is that city deals have encompassed the devolution of micro-economic policy. Of course, macro-economic policy, almost by definition, cannot be devolved – and there is no evidence that national policy-makers take the needs and interests of different localities into account within making macro-economic policy.

In other words, the devolution agenda remains indebted to neoclassical ideas around “agglomeration” and self-sustaining markets, which implore government (at all levels) to simply get out of the way. It is a perspective which chimes with “Treasury view” traditions, and it is revealing that the Treasury has been almost solely responsible for the devolution agenda within central government. It has led to a deal-making process typical of Treasury statecraft, not least because the Treasury, insofar as it controls all public expenditure, always holds the strongest hand.

The configuration of devolution deals around city-regions is, in general, the correct approach, insofar as city-regions represent meaningful economic spaces. Yet it has been too rigidly applied, with some incredibly messy results, with too many square pegs have been forced into metro-shaped holes. Officials have paid insufficient attention to the risk that devolution done badly can increase geographical inequality, or to the opportunities inherent in enabling large cities with different strengths to work together.

We need a real deal for progressive devolution. Given the extent to which the growth plans in operation in almost every Local Enterprise Partnership area depend – often just implicitly – on increased exports to Europe, and the extent to which public investment in deprived areas was underpinned by EU structural and investment funds, Brexit underlines this imperative.

How to fix it

My report The Real Deal: Pushing the Parameters of Devolution Deals, co-authored with colleagues at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, argues that it’s a mistake to focus  on what local government needs to do, or how local government needs to change. Rather, the first step to devolution is reforming the centre.

The current devolution agenda answers the question, “What should be devolved?” A progressive approach to devolution would instead ask, “Where should power reside?” Let’s rethink from first principles the powers that central government has, rather than simply gobbling up the ones it is willing to give away.

It needs to be underpinned by a new constitutional settlement on centre-local relations. We also need a meaningful industrial strategy – something else May is promising – informed by the local, but led by the centre. Industrial policy involves the mobilisation of economy-wide resources in support of strategically important industries; by definition, local economies cannot do industrial policy alone.

Our report goes on to outline 11 sets of ideas around specific areas of policy relevant to the devolution debate (housing, transport, local banking and so forth). We seek to go with the grain of existing devolution deals, but broaden out their scope.

The devolution of employment support programmes, for instance, should see local authorities allowed to use these programmes strategically to support local economies, and not to force individuals into “any old job”. Councils should also be given more powers – including over tax – to shape how land within their jurisdiction is used, and see planning veto powers supplemented by the ability to shape local housing markets.

The scope of progressive devolution, however, goes beyond local authorities. All “anchor” institutions, particularly large public sector employers, could be doing more to support the local economies in which they are situated through procurement. Universities, in particular, should be better integrated into local economic governance – although this would require a decentralisation of research funding.

Underpinning all of this is the need for devolution to be a genuinely democratising moment. To succeed over the long term, the process will require much greater levels of citizen engagement in local politics, so strings-attached city deals have to be suspended while residents are consulted.

Many parts of the UK demanded the right to “take back control” on 23 June. Let’s give it to them where it really matters.

Craig Berry is deputy director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Sheffield. He has previously worked at HM Treasury, the International Longevity Centre-UK and the Trades Union Congress.

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The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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