There is no doubt in my mind that devolution is the right way forward for local politics and for the UK as a whole. As a former Mayor and local politician, I know that if you want to make a difference to your local community, and if you want to improve the place where you live, then local, not national, politics is the route you need to go down.
In general, councils are efficiently run and receptive to their communities, and devolving power through them is the best way to ensure good decisions that make people’s lives easier. In sum: decisions that are made closer to the people are generally better for the people.
This in mind, surely devolving power from central government is the way forward? In principle, yes. But the key word is “power”. And, as we know, those who have power rarely want to give it away.
Last, new devolution deals for Suffolk and Norfolk were announced by Michael Gove to supposedly give the counties more power and funding worth over £1bn. As one of the few people in the UK to have held office as an elected “metro” mayor, I know the pitfalls that will confront new elected leaders in both counties. They will not have the powers they believed they were being given. It is more likely they will become a plaything of government and, more particularly, the civil service.
In short, what we have in the UK, certainly England, is a devolution sham.
Each devolution deal is a smoke and mirrors exercise, devised by civil servants to give the illusion of local autonomy while maintaining a firm grip on the process from the safety of Whitehall.
We would be wrong to think the extra money comes without strings, to be spent on solving problems in the county solely. In fact, the Mayor may be elected, but the purse strings are likely to be tightly controlled in Whitehall. And if decisions are made that flout the bureaucracy’s thinking or, heaven forbid, actually achieve success in an area where the government is failing, we can expect that money to be swiftly held back.
The only way to achieve true local decision making and devolution is to devolve fiscal responsibility. Any other route will end up in a fudge deliberately engineered by Whitehall to make it seem that only they can exercise power for the region. It is truly unfortunate our country is run the way it is; and the system is particularly damaging to the regions, and nowhere more so than the East of England.
Keeping the regions weak and centralising power in Whitehall does not serve the people.
Michael Gove should scrap the devolution deals he has offered to Norfolk and Suffolk and deliver a deal for each that is truly devolutional. He should also seriously consider giving them fiscal control and autonomy from Whitehall. There are over 6 million residents in the East and they deserve the opportunity to make decisions for their region and in particular regarding the infrastructure that so poorly serves them. This is the case my colleagues and I at the Eastern Powerhouse have been making, and will continue to do so as long as devolution fails us.
We now have a chance to do something exceptional. Local politicians should embrace, not shy away from, the prospect of having an elected Mayor. Mayors can challenge and they can reform, and critically they can deliver for their local area in ways that central government is often unable to. If, of course, the devolution deal is written correctly.
Central government simply must think outside the traditional box. In the East, for example, this means allowing business rate retention for a devolved region; allow the elected Mayors to make decisions without having to consult civil servants in Whitehall.
This is our chance for real devolution in the UK, not the puppet devolution currently being offered to Norfolk and Suffolk. Michael Gove’s offer is the same as the deal that has failed to deliver in Cambridgeshire, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. He is still seen by many as a great reformer; and the reputation is not unearned. And here, he has the chance to do something truly great by facing down his civil servants and actually devolving power from Whitehall.
£ James Palmer is Chair of the Eastern Powerhouse and former Mayor