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Local government must be more than just a branch of Whitehall Metro mayors offer a striking example of what can be achieved by devolving more power

Political Insider

Up and down the country people are beginning to worry about the death of local government. Bus services are less frequent, accessing health and social care is becoming more difficult, and high streets shops are closing down. Local councils face budget cuts while demand for their services increases. Local authorities are now simply delivery arms of national government.

At the same time, the devolution movement has stalled. While the nations of the UK have been subject to a steady devolution of responsibilities since 1997 (albeit to differing degrees), within England, outside London, it remains a work in progress. The country is now made up of a confusing arrangement of metro mayors, unitary authorities, and district councils. While these structures were designed to resolve some of the governance challenges that the UK faces, the process came from the centre, rather than in response to local demands, and in some cases even weakened lower levels of government.

The devolution of decision-making has rarely been matched with fiscal devolution. The result is that the diverse needs of Britain’s 9,000 communities are not being met. People feel like they have no influence over decision-making, either at a local and national level. Trust in government is at a record low of 36 per cent. We need to re-engage communities and promote decision-making at the lowest practical level, empowering local authorities and individuals in their local area.

People connect with their locality in different ways. Some feel strongly attached to their street or community group, others to their town or county. It seems a truism, but most people in England like where they live. A third still live in the same village or town in which they were born. It is in everyone’s interests to improve the local area. Harnessing this connection will be a key driver of localism and public service delivery in the future.

We need to find the right level at which power and revenue-raising can be devolved. It is worth looking at the performance of metro mayors, who have offered a vision of an England with accountable and transparent regional leaders. At the appropriate level, the combined authority model can ensure local governments cooperate in practical and appropriate ways, across services as diverse as transport, health, and planning.

In Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham has harnessed his relatively high profile to advocate greater investment in the region and across the north in general. Burnham said himself that after his experience in as an MP, Westminster was simply too remote to be able to fix society’s problems. As one of his key promises, transport has becomes something of a totemic issue in Manchester; crowded trains and congestion now overshadow his plans to overhaul and integrate the regional network.

Of Burnham’s other hallmark promise, homelessness, Manchester City Council has begun implementing a plan to provide bed space for every rough sleeper in the city. His challenge will be to collaborate with the other council authorities in the GMCA to design local solutions to this issue. Andy Street has also used his public platform to advertise the West Midlands, nationally and around the world.

A fall in unemployment has come alongside Birmingham being awarded the 2022 Commonwealth Games. These are notable achievements, but Street recognises that it is the skills shortage which threatens the long-term prosperity of the region. Local businesses and vocational training providers need to be at the centre of this effort, to ensure that there are both educational pathways and job opportunities which allow people to remain in the local area once trained.

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