England embraces devo-metro but rest of UK stuck in nation mode
While England is granting power to city regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland appear less keen. Suppliers should note at which level power resides
Last week saw big moves towards devolution in England. Council News Monitor tracked Greater Manchester’s 10 councils sealing the deal on new responsibilities and powers, along with a mayor for the city region. Birmingham and the four Black Country councils agreed to form an overlying combined authority, and Coventry and Solihull are thinking of joining them.
Areas including Lancashire, Merseyside, Bristol and its environs and West Yorkshire are either discussing or applying for greater devolution, while Southampton and Portsmouth are talking about a Solent City Combined Authority. English devolution for city regions and even counties appears to be kicking off. While councils have long grouped together for some procurement, in future suppliers to English local government will increasingly deal with city (and possibly county) regions.
You might imagine that the UK’s devolved nations would be keen to devolve some power even closer to their citizens. With a few exceptions, you would be wrong. The Scottish Government has tended to centralise rather than devolve, while Wales and Northern Ireland are both in the process of major reorganisations of local government.
The Scottish Government’s centralising tendencies were shown by its merger of local police services into one national force, Police Scotland. There is an efficiency argument for doing this, but the new organisation has sometimes appeared to treat all of Scotland like the meanest streets of Glasgow. It deployed armed officers on routine patrols nationwide, which went down particularly badly in the Highlands when three armed officers were sent to investigate a minor incident at a McDonald’s in Inverness.
Last week, the leader of Glasgow City Council Gordon Matheson gave a speech arguing that soon-to-be first minister Nicola Sturgeon was stifling devolution to Scottish cities. “The metropolitan revolution in our country is being quelled by the counterveiling forces of centralising and nation-building,” he said.
“True devolution isn't about transferring powers from one centralising government to another. I believe that Scotland should have more powers, but Holyrood should have less.” Speaking of England, he added that “for years it's been ahead of Scotland when it comes to urban policy”.
It can be noted that Mr Matheson is a Scottish Labour politician, a party which is deeply threatened by Ms Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party, not least in Glasgow – a city currently run by pro-UK Labour, but where a majority of residents voted yes to independence.
Yet he has a point. Glasgow was once a district of the giant Strathclyde Regional Council, which governed around half of the Scottish population until its abolition in 1996. Strathclyde may have been too big, but Glasgow City Council has the same problem as Manchester City Council: it runs the middle of what is clearly a much larger city.
Glasgow has pointedly joined the UK-wide Core Cities group, and with seven of its neighbours has set up the Glasgow and Clyde Valley Infrastructure Fund, agreed in August. But more significant devolution would have to come from the Scottish Government.
Wales and Northern Ireland have not suffered the recent political trauma of a vote on independence, but both are currently reorganising their councils, a process rarely linked to empowerment. From 1 April next year, Northern Ireland will replace its 26 councils with 11, with councillors already elected. The Welsh Government recently announced planned average cuts of 3.4% in the budgets of its 22 local authorities, and has asked for councils to volunteer to merge – to little enthusiasm so far.
Suppliers need to know where power lies in order to watch procurement opportunities, follow political developments and develop relationships. In England, those serving the local public sector clearly need to attend to the new combined authorities, and the opportunities and dangers they will generate.
In Scotland, the ‘Greater Glasgow’ councils have a good case for some kind of city region deal, and are worth keeping an eye on. But in general the governments of the UK’s devolved nations currently seem to see devolution as something they get, rather than grant.
SA Mathieson edits Council News Monitor, a daily email service that tracks news on local authorities including devolution in England. click here for details
Greater Manchester and government announce ‘Devo Manc’ agreement (press release)
Coventry and Solihull set to join Birmingham and Black Country authority (Coventry Telegraph)
Matheson: Sturgeon is stifling revolution for cities (Herald Scotland)
Devolution means councils climbing back on the buses (The Information Daily, October 2014)
Devolution means new opportunities for public sector suppliers (The Information Daily, September 2014)
For suppliers, Scotland is another country within or without the Union (The Information Daily, June 2014)
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.
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