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Taking devolution seriously

A quiet revolution is happening in British government and politics. Hitherto our political system has been one of the most centralised in the developed world. Now there is a deliberate movement to decentralise. It was started by Labour Governments in the legislation to devolve powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1998 and then to combined local metro-authorities in 2009.

The Conservatives are continuing the process with their Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill which completed its passage through the Commons on Monday. The Bill provides for combined authorities to have a directly elected Mayor, like London. These Mayors will be the Police and Crime Commissioner for their area and have powers over strategic planning, transport, housing, healthcare, economic development, fire and emergency planning. They will be required to consult a local Cabinet. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority has already signed up for this package and a number of other authorities are negotiating to join them.

The aim is to develop a more participative political culture, rightly starting at the local level. The low turnout in local elections demonstrates the need for this and also the scale of the risk the national Government is taking. Only 13.93% bothered to vote in the election of the Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner in 2012. This reflects the cynical ‘them and us’ attitude to politics and politicians, which is a destructive cancer in a democracy. If this devolution helps to change attitudes and encourage citizen participation it could do a lot to revive democracy but there are some big ‘ifs’. It won’t achieve this if local councils don’t listen to their voters and encourage interest groups and local communities to engage. George Osborne has helped by scrapping central grants to local authorities and allowing them to set the rate of the business taxes levied in their areas and retain the yield along with the Council tax. If this leads to authorities adopting different policies, levying different tax rates and creating different standards of service. it could well result in inequalities that excite voter resentment and engagement.

A second ‘if’ relates to the competence of local politicians to exercise their new powers. Two local authorities have been placed under ‘special measures’ in recent years. Commissioners were appointed to run Rotherham Council after an independent inspection of its handling of child sexual exploitation concluded that it was not fit for purpose. The Mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets was disqualified from office for five years after accusations of voting fraud. The recruitment and training of local authority staff may also need upgrading in light of the increased powers and responsibilities. There may also be a need for machinery to resolve the inevitable conflicts between central government and the more powerful local authorities.

The Creation narrative tells us that we are all made in God’s image and given responsibility for the care of His creation. Sin has distorted the image and led many to neglect this responsibility or abuse it for our own ends. Reconnecting the people with the responsibilities of governing our communities could motivate more of us to consider our neighbours and seek the common good.