Mark Whitehead 01 October 2019

Queen's speech: Time to 'reignite the devolution process'?

The forthcoming Queen's Speech comes at an unusually turbulent time amid the furore of Brexit, the prorogation of parliament and the subsequent Supreme Court ruling that suspension of normal activity was unlawful.

But as always it presents local government with an opportunity to spell out what it wants the country's democratic representatives to do in the months ahead.

Like many others, the Local Government Association has taken the opportunity of setting out its demands. The overarching plea is for more power to be handed to councils to run their affairs in the way they think best for their local communities.

The Queen's Speech, it says 'could be used by the prime minister to release the Government’s centralised grip of budgets and spending priorities across England.'

This 'will allow local areas to make decisions on how money is spent and design services that work for their communities and reduce demand for higher cost national services.'

An English Devolution Bill would hand over powers and funding to local areas. Councils, seemingly, 'want to see their communities benefit from the full range of opportunities currently available to areas where devolution has already taken place'.

However, financial devolution is exactly what the Government is doing. It is gradually reducing its own contribution to local authority budgets and forcing them to rely increasingly on the business rates they can raise for themselves.

Reform of local government funding has been delayed. Raising the proportion of business tax councils can keep from 50% to 75% will not now take place until 2021/22 along with the fair funding review the government promised four years ago. But the direction of travel is clear and the Government's aim remains to reduce the money it provides to councils to the minimum and to force them to raise money locally themselves.

If that aim is achieved, it will give councils far greater control over their own resources without having to rely on support from the Government. They will then be able to make more of their own decisions about how much to raise and what to spend it on.

That, some would argue, would be an attractive reflection of local democracy. But like devolution, which the LGA is especially keen on, it raises questions about how resources are distributed and who gets to decide how they are used.

The dangers of the 'post code lottery' are raised from time to time when it becomes apparent that services – typically NHS services – are available some areas but not in others.

This, the argument usually goes, is 'not fair'. But devolution is based on the idea that places are different and local authorities should decide for themselves how they should be allocated. It inevitably means that services are available in some places but not in others, or that the quality of the services on offer will vary.

Devolution of resources and powers has an attractive ring to it. But as some have pointed out, it can mean prosperous areas being able to afford better services for their well-heeled communities while others, who lack a preponderance of profitable businesses and wealthy households within their boundaries, will inevitably lose out.

The Queens Speech – whenever it comes – will evidently see a big push by the Local Government Association and others for more devolution. The call will be for more local democracy, so that councils can decide policies to suit their own communities.

It is a central tenet of local government philosophy. But the dangers of too much local democracy should be noted lest the 'haves' prosper while the 'have nots' go to the wall.

Update: The Government has promised to publish a devolution White Paper.

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