There is power in a region

By Douglas Johnson

Regional government made a rare appearance in the national media on Sunday, as Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick MP hinted at the potential agreement of a new wave of devolution deals. These could include new combined authority mayoralties for North Yorkshire, the East Riding of Yorkshire and Cumbria, as well county deals for more rural areas.

It’s tempting to see the main appeal for the Conservatives of further regional devolution as electoral. A key part of the party’s recent appeal in ‘Red Wall’ seats in former Labour heartlands has been the promise of investment. Mayors, like Ben Houchen in Teeside, offer a high-profile vehicle for investments – complete with hard hat photocalls ready for the next batch of election leaflets.

Nonetheless, combined authority mayoralties have arguably offered opportunities for both main parties. The mayoralties in Manchester and Liverpool have provided Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham with platforms outside of Westminster – and a rare chance for Labour to show it can deliver in government. Combined with Conservative losses in Cambridgeshire and the West of England in May, the Prime Minister’s reported scepticism about further devolution is therefore not really a surprise.

The prospect of new county devolution deals is particularly interesting. These have been in the works for some time – Surrey County Council and local authorities in Lincolnshire have already expressed interest in acting as pilots for a devolution programme for counties. To date, devolution deals have typically focused on city regions. Creating a model that works for rural areas where, as Mr Jenrick says, a mayoral system may be perceived as ‘alien’ will require innovation.

A shift towards devolution deals at a county, rather than just a city, level may also indicate a more general change in the relationship between local and central government. Mr Jenrick has spoken about:

‘being more innovative in the way we deliver public services and believing that there doesn’t need to be a single model for the whole country…work[ing] with high-performing councils to give them more power over the delivery of public services.’

This is not a return to the relative strength of local government before Thatcher’s reforms in the 1980s. Power remains firmly with central government: the implication of Mr Jenrick’s desire to work with ‘high performing councils’ is that Government will set the criteria for who is performing well and will therefore get funding.

It’s a short step from here to a model where mayors effectively become the delivery arm for Government priorities – an easier task currently for Conservative mayors. The challenge for leaders of combined authorities or devolved counties from other parties will be finding ways of working with the Government to get the investment their regions need.