Devolving power from Whitehall would restore faith in government, EU or no EU

Alexander Jan
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What we need now is a progressive set of policies designed to renew the contract between government and its citizens (Source: Getty)

All that we know for absolute certain after the first two rounds of Brexit talks is that Britain’s attempt to unwind itself from more than 40 years of involvement in the European project is going to take time.

The process is not without its risks. Bookmakers are offering a miserly 5/6 on a Brexit deal being agreed in time for the 2019 deadline.

In the meantime, business organisations fear a serious shock to the economy and are looking into contingency plans and ramping up their efforts to secure transitional arrangements.

Read more: Bregret? Here's how the country would vote now in an EU referendum

Centre for London has gone further, with its recent report called Open City: London After Brexit. The authors make the case not only for transitional arrangements, but also for an agenda of devolving many responsibilities and powers to London government.

The shopping list includes taking back control of skills, a say for City Hall on migration, devolved taxes to tackle housing and infrastructure shortages, as well as a programme to build stronger links with the UK’s other major cities.

This report may have been envisaged to mitigate the risks of Brexit, but – somewhat ironically – the solutions it proposes would tackle a wide range of voter grievances that led to the vote for Brexit in the first place.

These include the remoteness of central government from voters, a perceived sense of unfairness that London gets more than its fair share of public spending (despite the fact that London generates a tax surplus of some £30bn for the rest of the UK), and a general frustration with the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on take-home pay and living standards.

Concern about Brexit is growing. Think chlorinated chicken from the US appearing on British supermarket shelves. And regardless of what some might argue, the debate is not yet settled. Bookmakers are offering odds of 4/1 on a second referendum before 2019. Expect hedge fund traders to start taking positions on the UK remaining.

Talking about the possibility that the UK may not actually leave the EU may still be a minority sport. But there is an increasingly compelling case that, whatever happens to Brexit, we need a new and lasting settlement between London and the rest of the country – one that would both be good for London’s growth and boost cities in the regions.

A step change in fiscal devolution, infrastructure investment, and home building would be a good place to start. It would help to rebuild trust in government – by delivering a structural shift in the power balance between Whitehall and town halls.

It is clear that the process of Brexit alone is already radically changing Britain’s political landscape. What we need now is a progressive set of policies designed to renew the contract between government and its citizens.

The case for strengthening the power of local and regional authorities across the country is looking increasingly urgent. It is vital to addressing the longstanding concerns of the British public and securing the future of London, its economy and its lasting contribution to the rest of the UK.

Read more: Engineers want Britain to have a minister for infrastructure

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