Opinion: The next devolution?

Manchester Town Hall ClockChange is in the air, or that is the implication of the strange alignment of George Osborne for the Conservatives and Andrew Adonis for Labour, whose new report on re-balancing the economy – not that he used those terms – was published on Monday.

If you add Michael Heseltine’s 2012 review into the mix – published with a full-page portrait of the great Liberal reformist Joseph Chamberlain (yes, I know he became something else) – then the shift towards serious devolution of economic power seems unstoppable.

Why has it taken so long?  Because this is a Liberal idea and the party has been out of government from 1916 to 2010.  And partly because it is also very difficult to achieve.

Both the main engines of devolution under the coalition have been primarily Liberal Democrat led.  The Localism Act and City Deals have been important, but both share the same weakness – they are too often stymied in practice by Whitehall.

In the same way, the Treasury stymied an ambitious plan for tax increment financing, letting cities pay for projects by keeping the tax revenues that result.

In other words, to take these ambitions seriously, politicians need to go further than setting out their ambitions.  They need to say how they will break through the restrictions of Whitehall, without developing an almost Goveian contempt for officials.

They also need to say, not how this will work in Manchester or Bristol – that much is obvious – but how their plans will transform the economies of Bradford.  Or Hull.  Or Middlesborough.

I’ve argued before that there is an ultra-micro economics sector emerging – new local banks, new local energy installations, new local enterprise institutions, new ways of procurement, and maybe even new kinds of money.

It is in the earliest stages, and designed to look afresh and what assets any neighbourhood has – wasted land, wasted people, wasted resources – and turning that into a sustainable economy that can provide some measure of economic independence.

Those are questions rather than solutions, though some solutions are beginning to emerge. This very local economics is potentially a basis for greater self-determination, and it needs to be at the heart of Liberal Democrat policy.

But what should political parties put in manifestos about it?  The New Weather Institute has published a new report with some proposals, based on work funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd.  It is called The Next Devolution and it was published on Monday.

See if it suits your local campaign.


Photo above shows Manchester Town Hall by twitter.com/mattwi1s0n

* David Boyle is a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate and the author of Tickbox (Little, Brown). You can buy the book from Hive or Amazon.

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This entry was posted in News.


  • I am not sure about abolition, because positive enabling at Government level would be good. The trouble is, under Pickles all you can expect is negativity and restriction. I have just looked up who the Lib Dem Minister is. I have to say, my impression of Andrew Stunell when he was there is that he kept caving in to Tory “housing initiatives”. Stephen Williams, during his tenure, has been almost invisible (I am aware he occasionally posts articles here).

  • matt (Bristol) 2nd Jul '14 - 4:05pm

    To be fair to Roy Hattersley, I remember him calling for a slackening of the taxation restrictions then called ‘capping’ on councils (aprticularly city councils) in the 90s. I don’t remember anyone in Labour listening subsequently.

    I also note that the ‘super-councils’ proposal touted by Ed Miliband this week is suspiciously close to LibDem policy of allowing councils to group themselves into regional bodies with devolved power (a policy I was sceptical about on here, but is definitely a step forward).

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