Five things we learned from Reimagining the Local State

By Dr Simon Kaye | 20 June 2023

Last Friday, the think tank Reform held a conference on ‘Reimagining the Local State’ in Manchester. Here are five things that the advocates of devolution, localism, and community power should be talking about:

1. Lisa Nandy is ‘acutely aware’ of the risk that Labour’s localism will meet resistance in government.

I asked our keynote speaker, Lisa Nandy, about how confident she is about winning the localist argument if and when her party gets into power. Her answer was telling: Nandy acknowledged that Labour has often been ‘very very focused on states’. She compared her position to Michael Gove’s, who has been ‘thwarted at every turn’ while genuinely ‘trying to move power out of Westminster and Whitehall’.

Nandy also reflected on the fate of previous attempts to fundamentally shift power to localities and communities: ‘The “big society” collapsed very quickly in government into a different agenda, but at its inception, it was … an important check on the natural tendencies of political parties, including my own, to deny power to people.’

For Nandy, another source of risk arises from the personal accountability of ministers: ‘All oppositions talk a good game about devolution but what tends to happen is you get into power, something happens like a child dies somewhere. … You’re dragged onto the Today programme and asked to account for what’s happened, and you can’t say – “well, we wanted to try new ways of doing things, we thought we’d let a thousand flowers bloom.” … Unless you build in the accountability and transparency at the level at which power resides, that is going to happen again and again.’

2. Andy Burnham wants to help entrench Combined Authority devolution across England…

For Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester’s growing powers offer a model of devolution for the whole country:

‘Fill in the map, let all parts of England have a Combined Authority. That’s definitely the way to go. And what we have here now is a single settlement, a block of funding that can be used flexibly, as Wales and Scotland are able to do. I think we’re about half-way there in Greater Manchester to a mature, fully evolved system.’

This extends to a grander ambition. Burnham made it clear that he sees his mayoralty as part of a years-long project to win cross-party consensus around this new model:

‘I think that by the end of this decade I would hope devolution here and in England has become very firmly rooted, with strong cross-party consensus, and nobody looking to reverse it. … With young people thinking: I want to be a mayor rather than an MP. … We’re building confidence, building that sense of permanence, in what I think is the most functional layer of government in the UK.’

3. …but some local leaders are worried about ‘mini-Whitehalls’.

Conference attendees were welcoming of these recent, radical steps to empower some Combined Authorities – and of the Government’s promises of more to come.

But Bev Craig, Manchester City Council leader, voiced concerns that Combined Authorities might simply replicate Whitehall's power-hoarding tendencies at a regional level. ‘Some of the critiques we have of Whitehall holding on to that power – the risk is that with combined authorities we have mini-Whitehalls in some regional economies, and that we then replicate that behaviour even at a local level.’

4. Councils are ready to call time on competitive funding pots.

Levelling up is generally funded via a plethora of small, specific pots – short term, centrally managed, allocated through competitive processes, and with different reporting requirements and administrative asks. Bidding-in to these pots creates a lot of waste, but also means there’s less scope for collaboration.

As Deborah Cadman, chief executive of Birmingham City Council, put it: ‘You end up with a mad competition amongst each other. … Some of the structures coming from Whitehall … build in this immediate competitiveness, pulling against each other, when the reality is that none of this should be a zero-sum game.’

5. Local government’s innovators are still keen to experiment.

I asked Wigan’s chief executive, Alison Mckenzie-Folan, about the future of the Wigan Deal, nearly a decade on from its first implementation – and her reply suggested a hunger to go further, to learn from elsewhere, but most of all to build a system that reflected the particular needs of Wigan’s communities: ‘The world has changed … we’re humble, we’re relentless about going out and finding out from places like Grimsby, and other places where people are doing amazing stuff, wherever it is – in the UK or across the world. But what we build in Wigan we’ll build for us.’

Dr Simon Kaye is director of policy at Reform

@reformthinktank

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