The Devolution Deception

Osborne’s devo drive is about shifting the blame for austerity to powerless councils rather than broadening Britain’s democracy, believes GMB’s TIM ROACHE

BEING handed the power to control services which you cannot afford to deliver is the offer of a poisoned chalice. This is the inconvenient truth which sits at the heart of Tory devolution.

The attractions of devolution are obvious: services provided more democratically, bringing decision-making closer to communities, joined-up budgets, multiyear funding settlements and services responsive to local need.

George Osborne is travelling the regions to shout about — and woo local government leaders with — a vision of devolved power and investment to stimulate economic growth in areas crying out for real jobs. Up north, that means his “northern powerhouse.”

The problem with the warm words and lofty rhetoric is that in practice none of it stacks up and the Chancellor is hoping that we don’t notice.

Let’s take the underlying rationale. Why would a government that is ideologically wedded to delivering a smaller state and savage cuts in public spending embark on any strategy in Labour voting heartlands that amounts to precisely the opposite?

I don’t think it would, which poses the question of what exactly it’s devolving, and why it’s devolving it.

What the Tories are devolving is austerity.

I come from a position that devolution can be a good thing. My union, GMB, is fiercely proud of our strong regions and regional structure, but it seems to me that Tory devolution is about foisting central government-led austerity onto local leaders to implement.

Just a couple of weeks ago we heard the government say: “Oh, well, actually, we might introduce legislation that means you can’t actually take any action in your region that’s contrary to government policy,” while announcing at Tory conference that local authorities would have less power to make sure developers build affordable homes to rent.

As GMB regional secretary I lead one of the biggest unions in Yorkshire and north Derbyshire, and also chair the Yorkshire and Humber TUC.

I’m not sure the members I represent could tell us why the government is spending so much time talking about devolution while they’re seeing their tax credits cut — there is absolutely no clamour for this debate among grassroots union members. As an issue in the workplace it barely registers, so this policy isn’t born from a groundswell of support from the electorate.

You have to give the Tories credit (not something I say often). They’re not planning to increase the amount they spend on local government, but that fact will get lost in the shuffle. They’ll devolve the cut-making to local leaders while shrinking the central state.

They can bank the credit for talk of investing in the north and former industrial areas while rubbing their hands together that — if the city regions fall just right — they could end up with Tory mayors overseeing the government of large swathes of the Labour-voting north.

If our movement is not careful, the sum total of this talk of devolution will mean local leaders imposing more austerity on an electorate who did not vote for it.

Public-sector workers in health, care and local government are battered and bruised at the hands of austerity. From devolution, there is a real concern that national terms and conditions — and indeed national bargaining — will be undermined and replaced with regional pay.

There is a danger that local government employees will become even further removed from those who employ them as new sprawling bureaucracies emerge (and we’re told the Tories want rid of “red tape” when it comes to health and safety) and that industrial relations — already strained at local council level — will come under greater pressure as authorities combine and city-wide agreements on areas such as equal pay are “harmonised” downwards to the lowest common denominator.

The changes proposed by Osborne represent a fundamental shift in the way local government works that no-one is talking about. If the government’s attitude to public-sector and local government pay and pensions is anything to go by, I can’t imagine their version of devolution is going to enhance terms and conditions — far from it.

Tory devolution is not “the only game in town” and it is no fait accompli.

Just because we like the concept, doesn’t mean we should accept any version of it unquestioningly and with open arms.

I want to see more power in our regions, more power in ordinary people’s hands and in the hands of our members and local government workers — but this Tory version of devolution doesn’t achieve that.

Labour local authorities cannot be seen to be doing backroom deals with a Tory Chancellor who is simply trying to bolster his own bid for the Conservative Party leadership. These policies affect too many people for our movement to sit quietly and watch events unfold.

The people I represent need to know exactly what bang we’re getting for our devolution buck, and we need to know that before any deals are signed and sealed. For me, any such deal needs to mean better services for local people, proper funding to run those services and a real recognition of local government workers and the role they play in delivering services alongside a genuine democratic mandate from the public.

So here are the five Tory devolution deceptions:

Elected mayors — Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Wakefield, as recently as 2012, voted against the notion of having an elected mayor. The Tories didn’t like that result so they’re finding a new way to impose their policy.

Research by Oxford economists suggest that, contrary to Tory claims, there could be a loss of nearly one million jobs by 2020 across the local enterprise partnership regions.

The great business rate con — the full retention of business rates is for new businesses only and will not kick in until 2020. Leeds City Council would need to build 100 new arenas and 100 new Trinity shopping centres to come anywhere near plugging the funding hole left by local government cuts.

A race to the bottom on business rates — there’s potential for cash-strapped councils to compete to lower their business rates to attract new companies. We could be in a situation where neighbouring regions try to outbid each other on “how low can you go.” The bigger winners in that scenario are the businesses that will benefit from lower rates while council funding is still stretched to breaking point.

When is devolution not devolution? Just a few weeks ago Tory plans were reported that suggested devolved regions wouldn’t actually be able to implement policies that were out of line with Westminster. Hot on the heels of that announcement came news that local authorities’ power to ensure developers build a set proportion of affordable housing for rent in new developments would be weakened.

  • Tim Roache is GMB regional secretary for Yorkshire and north Derbyshire.
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