What do recent events tell us about devolution?
The Prime Minister reportedly said that devolution in Scotland had been a ‘disaster’. Communities secretary Robert Jenrick explained ‘devolution in Scotland has facilitated the rise of separatism and nationalism in the form of the SNP’. Is that surprising?
Meanwhile the Spending Review signalled the Government’s approach to devolution in England. Growth in core spending power depends mainly on councils increasing council tax. Why was the usual rider ‘or £5, whichever is the higher’ omitted from the district council criteria for ‘excessive’ council tax increases? Districts welcome their share of £670m to help households least able to afford council tax. I suspect the Government will tell billing authorities how to use the money.
We finally have some information about the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF). It does not match the value of EU funds it replaces: £220m next year to help local areas prepare ‘pilot programmes and new approaches’. But the UKSPF ‘will operate UK-wide, using the new financial assistance powers in the UK Internal Market Bill’. This seems a centralist approach: no role for local government is mentioned. The levelling up fund worth £600m next year will involve a ‘first round of competitions in the New Year’. A bidding process, not devolution of funding to areas to allow them to choose how best to invest. Justifying capital spending plans to the Treasury to access borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) chips away at flexibility under the prudential borrowing legislation.
The PM subsequently explained himself: ‘Devolution…should be used as a step to pass power to local communities and businesses to make their lives better’. So devolution is not about empowering sub-Whitehall levels of governance – whether that is countries, regions, combined authorities or even councils.
Is that the sort of devolution that councils expect? They will have to wait, with the latest rumour that the White Paper is delayed until after May’s elections.
Ian Miller is chief executive of Wyre Forest DC