On 30 November, the Ministry of Housing, Communities, Local Government (MHCLG) Select Committee held an oral evidence session with two panels. The oral evidence session was to discuss devolution and to re-examine the experiences of regions with devolution deals compared to those without, and so drew on the expertise of several council representatives. In attendance were Jamie Driscoll (Labour, North of Tyne Combined Authority); James Palmer (Conservative, Cambridge and Peterborough Combined Authority); Amy Harhoff (Durham County Council unitary authority); and David Williams (Conservative, Hertfordshire County Council).
From the outset of this session, one thing was abundantly clear: regardless of political leaning, devolution is being welcomed on a local level. Local administrations feel that decisions made at a local level benefit more people than if decisions were made at a national level.
The similarities don’t stop there. Both Mayor Driscoll and Mayor Palmer said that their biggest challenge as devolved administrations is directly engaging with ministers – a common problem not just in relation to devolution. The lack of direct communication between devolved administrations and MHCLG ministers has caused a divide between national and local politicians. Don’t take their word for it: look at the relationship between Mayor Sadiq Khan and the Government…frosty at the best of times.
But one statement Mayor James Palmer stood out to me: ‘The political drive for devolution has been affected by the civil servants’ control of the agenda because of major instances such as Brexit and COVID-19’. Is there a lack of ambition from Whitehall and national government to support further devolution, or is Whitehall and national government sceptical of greater devolution?
It’s alarming that devolution appears to have stalled, and with the government’s new manifesto pledge of levelling up the country, an enormous amount of pressure will now be put on the government not only to fund local councils, but to empower local communities. After all, surely that’s what levelling up is – not just pumping money into regions, but making sure local councils and local people feel a part of the decision-making process?