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Don’t lose sight of devolution’s role to empower

Devolution – an unlikely candidate to have captured the imagination of the general public. Yet questions regarding the future of the Union and English devolution have become a pressing concern for political leaders and citizens alike, featuring heavily in recent election debates.
This week the Queen’s Speech announced a new Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, paving the way for a policy that will shape the future of our cities. With the Conservative government’s approach to devolution now on its way to becoming law, what does this mean for the future of the devolution agenda in England?

The Conservative model exemplified in Devo Manc has sparked widespread debate as to what such deals represent for the future of Manchester and cities across England. Some see recent devolution reforms as a brilliant opportunity to encourage and release the inherent growth potential within cities, empower citizens and the civil economy, and reduce political apathy.
However, the current model devolves power to cities in an uncoordinated and piecemeal way, interpreting devolution through a Treasury backed agenda with less recognition of its subsequent potential to improve living standards and reduce inequalities. The current approach has had little public or third sector consultation and engagement within the process.

Devolution is fundamentally about empowering citizens to exercise their right to shape their civic institutions and public services by devolving power and accountability to the local level. Although reforms packages like Devo Manc do introduce a level of democratic accountability with the introduction of an elected mayor, the development and implementation process of these reforms has been delivered without any deep democratic consultation. Manchester has made no secret over the years of its desire to gain more powers and responsibilities, and with such powers within their grasp it is perhaps understandable why city leaders have preceded at such speed and viewed conditions such as an elected mayor as an acceptable compromise.

‘The way in which Devo Manc has been implemented – a process that other cities are likely to follow – fails to provide a mechanism through which citizens can truly participate and become empowered.’

But the speed at which the process has been implemented has resulted in a narrow interpretation of ‘devolution’ being imposed by national government, resulting in problematic elements including an inherent democratic deficit. This has led to increasing disquiet and opposition towards the proposal amongst some of Greater Manchester’s citizenry and third sector. As a result, growing protest movements are developing within Manchester with campaigns and organisations such as VoteOnDevoManc, the People Assembly against Austerity MCR, and Manchester Trades Council, all of which publicly express concerns over Devo Manc and the devolution process alongside wider anti-austerity critiques.

These movements may be an indicative response towards what seems to be a growing disconnect between local government as a locally representative democratic structure, and an increasing desire for a more participatory local democratic system.

The way in which Devo Manc has been implemented – a process that other cities are likely to follow – fails to provide a mechanism through which citizens can truly participate and become empowered. It imposes a largely ‘one size fits all’ structure, conditional on the introduction of an elected mayor. The current piecemeal approach towards devolution also lacks any kind of overarching framework and focuses purely on large cities, thereby failing to recognise the need to ensure equity and equality within the process for localities across England. Implicit within this process is the assumption that it is perfectly legitimate for power to lie within Whitehall and for Whitehall to decide when, how and at what price to devolve.

Ultimately the primary issue is not whether or not an elected mayor is the right structure, instead it is a question of where power should lie and whether or not citizens have the right to exercise their voice to shape the devolution process within their area and hold such power to account.
With the introduction of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, it is unlikely that the current approach to devolution will change anytime soon. It is therefore of paramount importance that we recognise the opportunities the Bill presents and the potential for the mayoral model to create a genuine fillip for a more participatory local democracy. In order to fully realise this, local authorities must encourage, consult and inform the public when considering any forthcoming devolution plans and ensure the participation of the third sector in any forthcoming negotiations.

In Manchester there may yet be opportunities for citizens and the third sector to have their voices heard and play a greater role in the delivery of local services or community budgets as powers are devolved.
The current approach to devolution must make room for the both civil society and the civil economy, and we must embrace the most fundamental and compelling principle upon which the devolution argument is based: its ability to empower citizens.

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