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English devolution should be community-based and community-led

Last week saw a major voluntary and community sector summit on the voluntary sector and devolution in England. The summit was timely and important as government considers the next stages in the drive to devolve responsibility and some power and resources to city regions and sub-regions.

Inevitably, the change in political leadership post-Brexit has created a pause in the programme, and sadly, there are signs that government may now be less enthusiastic on this topic. This is most unfortunate for there remains a real opportunity to consider how best to deliver and achieve greater local control and accountability with proper resourcing.

‘Seize the moment’ has to be the order of the day for the the voluntary and community sector (VCS). It is vital that it energises itself and is proactively involved in the political debate around devolution.

‘Devolution has to be underpinned by central government

committing to resources for local control and decision-making’

There has been a varied degree of opportunity for VCS to be engaged at a local level, with far too many examples of local authority leaders and ministers rushing at a pace to secure ‘devolution deals’ without taking time to involve or even speak with critical local stakeholders.

I accept that, in part, this has been due to the pace of decision-making required by George Osborne as Chancellor. However, there can be no excuse, whatever the pressures from Whitehall, for local political leaders to exclude civil society groups and local citizens. If devolution is about empowering local communities and strengthening local democracy, then citizens and civil society organisations should never be sidelined or excluded. To do so challenges the very premise on which the policy is meant to be based.

Central government should always ask how the VCS and wider civil society groups have been consulted and involved in the development of local devolution propositions before considering, let alone endorsing, them.

And local government leaders have a moral duty to consult and involve local civil society. I would go further and suggest that local authorities should provide support, including financial support, to enable the local VCS to participate comprehensively.

Much emphasis has been placed on the economic benefits of devolution but long term, sustainable, inclusive growth can only be achieved through long term growth in social capital, community assets and communities themselves. Such growth cannot be ‘engineered’ by central or local government on their own, though clearly they have major roles to play. It requires the contribution of the local voluntary and community sector, wider civil society, and local employers too.

Above all, it requires local communities and local citizens to make local decisions, to take control and to contribute.

No two devolution arrangements will be the same. And just as devolution must embrace a range of public services from health and social care to education and employment programmes, so too devolution has to be about more than devolving power to elected mayors, combined authorities and local authorities.

It has to include a commitment to ‘double devolution’ to communities. It has to be underpinned by central government committing to make the right level of resources available for local control and decision-making; to redistributing resources to address regional inequalities; and to a wider programme of systematic redistribution of wealth and income to address the inequality which is so dominant in this country. The reality is that without greater equality, the opportunities from devolution will be less and they are likely to reinforce the current obscene social, gender, sexual, ethnic and economic inequalities. We can have a more equal country without having uniformity or taking away local choices and differences.

The summit this week provided an important platform to discuss and argue for a new agenda of devolution based on fairness, democracy and equality.

And surely a good starting point for such is the set of principles promoted earlier this year by Locality and NAVCA:

  • creating a social economy
  • enabling representation of local VCS within local leadership structures
  • ensuring accountability through community engagement
  • taking decisions at the most local appropriate level
  • engaging local organisations to transform public services

The summit endorsed this approach and unanimously agreed a wide ranging set of principles – to be published soon. The summit said that devolution had to be contribute to a fairer and more equal country or else it had no value. It believed that this requires collaboration between the sectors and positive government action through its taxation and redistributive policies.

Government and local government have to understand and accept that for English devolution to be effective it needs to be community-based and community-led, with effective local accountability and national redistribution in order to create strong communities and local economies and a fairer country.

Photo by grongar

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