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Has Boris Johnson turned his back on devolution for England?
The Times’ ‘Chart of the Day’ is invariably good value, but the one by BritainThinks on Monday following the US Presidential Election was a gem. Effectiveness as a leader – marks out of 10 – of some 23 prominent public figures, alive and dead.
Presented in ascending order from the top, the results table was headed – surprise! – by Donald Trump (2.93), followed by Ed Davey, Wetherspoons founder Tim Martin, and Boris Johnson. Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair (4.76) then narrowly lost out to Joe Biden (5.11). At the bottom/top end, Winston Churchill (7.82) just pipped Nelson Mandela, Jacinda Ardern, Jurgen Klopp, Marcus Rashford, and the Queen.
Only two of the 23 were currently serving local government politicians: Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham, Mayors respectively of London and Greater Manchester. The latter’s superior ranking (5.39) doubtless owed much to his recent furious public row with the UK Prime Minister (4.41), whose imposition of the most stringent COVID-19 lockdown restrictions on the city region and refusal to increase the ‘standard’ £60 million financial support even to Burnham’s ‘bare minimum’ £65 million had prompted the latter’s accusation that Johnson was “playing poker with people’s lives”.
It sounds, and was, melodramatic – check out the Facebook/ITV News clip of Burnham’s Barbirolli Square press conference flanked by several Greater Manchester council leaders, he learns from one of their mobile phones the breaking news that the PM was punishing his protest, and Mancunian citizens, by peremptorily withdrawing the previously promised £60 million. That it later had to be restored – not by the PM, but by Health Secretary Matt Hancock – seemed merely to confirm all initial impressions.
The following weekend, Khan and Burnham wrote a joint column in The Observer/Guardian – ‘Mayors are a force for good. And it’s time Johnson recognised that’.
The theme is easily conveyed: “The UK nations and regions should have been the government’s biggest ally in the battle to control the spread of this virus … As mayors … we are uniquely placed to help … [we] work for hand in glove with local NHS leaders and regional health experts … we have strong links with local business leaders and understand the strengths of our local economies. Crucially – we have shown ourselves capable of reacting to events more quickly and devising more innovative solutions than a national government.”
When Johnson was a Mayor himself
‘Irony’ is among the most misused words in the English language, but we do seem to have a case here of either situational irony or straightforward duplicity.
A decade ago, Johnson was Khan’s predecessor as Mayor of London – the only Conservative, of course, to have come near to holding that office. Especially in his second term ‘Heineken Tory’ period – to which, who knows after last week’s events, he may yet seek to return – he very deliberately used London as a headline illustration of how devolved government in the UK was centrally over-controlled and under-funded, compared to other countries’ systems. He established a London Finance Commission, chaired by LSE Professor Tony Travers, which swiftly produced a neatly entitled report – Raising the Capital – with some seriously radical content.
Impossible here to summarise satisfactorily, the Commission’s conclusions were that London’s growing and changing population placed increasingly acute pressure on local services, while it's existing sub-national governments lacked the powers to provide effective solutions. Under 7% of tax paid by London residents and businesses was redistributed directly by locally elected bodies; 74% of London’s funding came through central government grants – compared with Berlin’s 25%, Paris’s 17%, and Tokyo’s 8%.
Taxation powers were merely one part of the required reform. But the Commission recommended that “the full suite of property taxes” – council tax, business rates, stamp duty, capital gains tax – be devolved to London governments, which should have responsibility for setting tax rates, revaluation, banding and discounts. There was plenty more, but the point here is less the Commission than the Commissioner himself: one Boris Johnson.
Ever the catchy phrase-seeker, Johnson launched his report by referring to tax-enfeebled London as “an economic and political giant but a fiscal infant.” However, while his Commission’s proposals were for London, the Mayor himself seemed more ambitious.
So, come to the 2013 Conservative Party Conference – in Manchester, by happenstance – there he was, leading a cross-party campaign with the London Councils and Core Cities Groups – the latter comprising then, pre-devolution, the Leaders of the eight major English cities, including Sir Richard Leese, then-as-now Leader of Manchester City Council and also Burnham’s Deputy Mayor, whose mobile phone would be the one conveying to Mayor Burnham the PM’s Greater Manchester lockdown news.
Piquant isn’t it! Because, back then, Johnson was asserting that England was much too centralised and called for a comparable suite of fiscal reforms for England’s largest cities. Ever the historian manqué, it would be a “historic and significant move, a partial but practical answer to the conundrum of English devolution, good not just for the cities involved, but for the country at large.”
What changed, what didn’t – the current state of English devolution
Financially, of course, nothing fundamentally changed. London could still be tagged as a tax-enfeebled “fiscal infant”. The difference being that it is now blatantly treated as such by its former Mayor. As recently as when the now PM resorted to apparently “lying to Parliament” about Mayor Sadiq Khan’s financial management of Transport for London, before grudgingly granting a £1.8 billion bailout and dropping demands for fare increases. Greater Manchester, London – you may sense a certain pattern emerging.
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), as it happens, was the first of these new devolution models to have been launched – by the Coalition Government back in 2011, although its actual Treasury-negotiated ‘City Deal’ didn’t happen until November 2014, shortly after the Scottish independence referendum. It set the pattern, though, for the now 10 CAs: local government entities set up by two or more neighbouring councils – the 10 metropolitan boroughs in Greater Manchester’s case – wishing to co-ordinate responsibilities and powers over services such as transport, skills training, economic development, housing and social care.
Eight of the 10 are mayoral CAs, meaning they are led by directly elected mayors: Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Sheffield City Region, North of Tyne (all Labour), West Midlands, West of England, Tees Valley, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough (all Conservative), leaving West Yorkshire and the North East as currently non-mayoral CAs.
However, the most recently created, North of Tyne, was in November 2018, since when the policy has effectively stalled. The October 2019 Queen’s Speech promised a White Paper with plans for “unleashing regional potential in England”, replicated almost verbatim on p.29 of the Conservative Manifesto: “full devolution across England…so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny.”
“Full devolution across England” – or have things gone backwards?
In normal times one would now turn straight to the Institute for Government (IfG) and its Policy Tracker for the first 100 days of the Johnson Government. As comprehensive as ever, it compared ‘Commitment’ to ‘Current status’ for some 28 policy fields – one of which was to “Publish an English Devolution White Paper” … “Yet to commence”.
To be fair, it was far from the only such pledge, and the COVID-19 pandemic commenced halfway through the first 100 days. Understandably, the agenda changed, as in July did the proposed title – to the ‘Local Economic Recovery and Devolution White Paper’, though the envisaged content and appearance dates remained as vague as ever. Through the summer it was to be September, then the Conservative Conference in October, then “Autumn”, then “on the back burner, pending a rethink” or simply “in due course”.
But, while ministers did their thing, local councillors recalled the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary’s opining that he saw no “long-term future” for two-tier local government, and started speculating about just how large and non-local single-tier ‘local’ authorities might be – 300,000 minimum? 500,000? 1 million? – and drawing lines on maps.
And ministers specifically responsible for the local government came and went – one, Simon Clarke, just possibly, I suggested at the time because he became overly enthusiastic about anything describable as “the greatest decentralisation of power in our modern history”.
I may have been wrong in detail, but right in practice. For Sir Bob Kerslake, former Head of the Home Civil Service and Chair of the UK2070 Commission, reckons the White Paper is “postponed until 2021 – and the local government reforms scaled back. Its emphasis will be less on devolution – it does feel like it has gone backwards”. Or, as Mayors Burnham and Khan observed, this prime minister just can’t handle devolution.
Chris Game is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham and a member of the PSA. He is the joint-author of the best-selling introductory text on Local Government in the United Kingdom. Image credit: Number 10/Flickr.