It's the 'big idea' of British domestic politics and it seems everyone is talking about it - but what do communicators need to know about devolution? Will Mapplebeck, strategic communications manager at Core Cities UK, gives some context and looks at where the agenda might go next.
By PANEL WRITER Will Mapplebeck
1. A bit of history, devolution didn't come out of nowhere
It may appear very new, but you can trace the present trend to devolving more powers from Whitehall to communities back to the late 1990s. The Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament were about the devolution of powers to nations, but the network of regional development agencies set up around the same time could be interpreted as a shift towards decentralising England.
2.Oh boy, it's complex. Embrace your inner policy wonk.
It's an ongoing policy debate and is riddled with complexity. It's also subject to academic and think tank rivalries, so the accent of ideas and focus of debate can change. And it ties in with other complex areas like public sector reform and smart cities. If you need to understand the basics, I'd suggest a quick look through the excellent LGA Devo Next hub as well as work from IPPR North, Respublica and Centre for Cities.
3. It's the economy, stupid.
So why do all this? What's the big idea behind metro mayors, Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine? It's all to do with improving our economy and our productivity. The evidence shows the more freedoms you give cities, for example powers to raise their own taxes, the more successful they become and the more they therefore contribute to national economies. It’s worth remembering that the UK is an 'outlier' - we are one of the most centralised states in the developed world. We also have historic problems with low productivity and the argument goes that redistributing power will help us crack this.
4. It's not just the economy, stupid
Steve Jobs – paraphrasing Wayne Gretzky - said you need to 'skate to where the puck is going to be' to succeed. If you want to spot a trend in devolutionary thinking, I'd say it's moving towards the social away from the purely economic. A popular idea at the minute is inclusive growth - this means that real growth only happens when you improve life chances by, for example, improving skills and training. Otherwise the costs of not including everyone actually hinder the growth you're trying to create. The RSA Inclusive Growth Commission - sponsored by Core Cities UK - is worth a look if you want more detail.
5. It's not going away
Don't think this is another Back to Basics or Big Society. All main political parties, agree with the idea of devolving more power out of Westminster and there's too much political capital invested in this to contemplate failure. Devolution as a concept is here to stay. From 2020 for example, local councils will no longer receive core Government grant but instead will generate their own incomes from business rates. But don’t think that it doesn't apply to you if you don't work in a local authority. Public Sector reform, via place-based budgeting for example, is a massive part of this agenda. This means joining up a fractured and dysfunctional state to achieve better outcomes.
6. It's a fast changing agenda
The Chancellor's announcement on business rates - probably the biggest development on fiscal devolution in two decades - took many by surprise last October. Next May we've got the prospect of Metro Mayors and leading UK politicians, including Andy Burnham, are already starting to show interest. We could also have non-political mayors. There’s Lord Digby Jones in the West Midlands and the prospect of Mayor Terry Christian in Manchester.
7. It means different things to different people
Remember if you're talking about devolution, it means something completely different in Scotland and Wales. In England it is about fiscal and functional freedoms for places and regions. But in two out of the UK Core Cities, Glasgow and Cardiff, it is about devolving power from Westminster to national parliaments at Holyrood and Cardiff Bay. Nationhood dominates the political agenda in those places and they are roughly a parliament behind us when it comes to devolved powers.
8. Don't forget, it’s really about power to the people
If you're communicating devolution, don't forget that for all the complex policy - this ultimately comes down to people. At Core Cities UK, we ran a campaign called Devo-Me. It zeroed in on three things - Housing, Jobs and Transport. Nice and simple. You can see it here. Devolution isn’t the easiest thing to communicate but the broad themes can be related to everyday lives.
(This blog is based on a presentation I gave at a LGA event in Newcastle in May 2016.)
image via The Library of Congress