Devolution, Regionalism, County Councils And Politics
Despite the reluctance of voters to accept that ‘the new localism’ also means significant change, English devolution is almost certainly upon us; but it’s unlikely to surface in the ways some imagine. Rather, the likelihood is that it will slowly become a part of the wider political landscape, as people seek ways to address specific problems.
Call it what you will – devolution, regionalism / decentralisation, ‘the new localism’, ‘the trend towards ‘city-regions’ or whatever – there is a strongly discernable move towards debate about empowering communities locally as such, and away from national ‘handed down’ political decision-making. Thus, for instance, we can expect the Lyons report on the future of local government cum the Summer.
This has been going on for quite a while now and is, we are told, the basis on which policy and delivery for schools, hospitals and many other organisations such as the intended children’s centres are to be determined. So far, so good…. but maybe, just maybe, we’re also learning a few wider political lessons along the way.
Voters want everything!
It’s interesting that at last modes of delivery are being examined before, not simply after, decisions about big changes are to be made.
According to this week’s New Start magazine there are now various warnings that speedy implementation of devolvement could produce perhaps as many problems as it ‘solves’. This is unsurprising to those of us who watched the orginal proposals for regional government go up in smoke for exactly the same reasons that the new localism will have to ease itself in.. the power and fears of county councils.
Voters may indeed want local powers (though there is always a danger that ‘power’ can mean ‘comfort zone’ if nobody is vigilant….) but many of them also like the established ways of doing things. They want: change without cost; no reduction in the structures already in place; less ‘red tape’; and a fully localised version of services and provision. In other words, they have hopelessly unrealistic expectations.
Sometimes, it can seem, politicians are perceived to be not only ‘power-mad’, and ‘in for what they can get’, but also miracle workers on behalf of their constituents.
This is the fundamental dilemma of any politicians who seeks to bring about change. If it’s going to take a long time it won’t happen before they are up for re-election – with the risk of accusations of breaking promises – and if it will be a significant change it will upset people who may want ‘improvements’, but also like the status quo.
This is where responsible journalism (yes, yes) and proper, carefully thought out political education come in. Perhaps there’s a case for a sort-of Sim City game which requires young students of politics and government to make decisions as though a politician against a backdrop, not of physical regeneration and development, but of constant hypothetical re-election.
Such a ‘game’ might help us all to realise there’s no such thing as a free lunch, even in the singular role of voter. What’s the point of demanding the politically impossible, when the real question for voters should be, what is possible, and at what opportunity-cost?
There again, perhaps much of the devolution which we are undoubtedly going to see will occur almost invisibly. Politicians may be unable to deliver as they wish – or may indeed be working actively to stop things happening – but often it’s ‘needs must’ which brings change about. There’s no non-collaborative way to secure plans and funding for a major piece of infrastucture, massive funding in a science park or research programme, or a strategy for foreign industrial investment.
As the members of the Northern Way, amongst others, have seen, only joint effort will achieve changes having any significant impact on an area. And it’s these incremental alliances, I suspect, which will in the end bring about the more difficult-to-deliver underlying devolutionary shifts in the political landscape.
Time scales are another problem
The judgement that overt English devolution will have to move fairly slowly if it is to be implemented effectively is probably sound. The only problem is… if a week is a long time in politics, however long in political terms is a decade? Suffice to say that the drive to devolution will need to be really well grounded if it is to survive and have impact on the extended time-scale (a decade or two?) now by some envisaged.
There are plenty of ideas which have taken centuries rather than decades to come to fruition; maybe with modern, technological ways of sharing ideas and cultural shifts we shan’t have to wait that long. But my bet is still that, whatever we see in the end, it won’t be exactly what we think we’re looking at now.