The emergency budget announced by George Osborne in summer 2015 gave the ‘go-ahead’ to devolution on an unprecedented scale and to the creation of a ‘Northern powerhouse’. There has since been a busy period of activity, with councils working rapidly to broker their devolution deals with central government. Amidst the haste, however, a key political driver for devolution; the ‘double-devolution’ of power from government to town halls, and then from town halls directly to citizens, as it was once called, risks falling by the wayside.
We must come to acknowledge that devolution, once regarded as a niche subject area of interest only to constitutionalists and local government bureaucrats, is now part of a hotly contested political landscape about the renewal of our democracy. It sits alongside a host of other issues. These may include constitutional questions about issues ranging from electoral reform, boundary reviews, EVEL (‘English Votes for English Laws’) and the West Lothian question. But they also extend beyond questions about our constitution towards more substantive questions about the creation of a thriving democracy and engaging the public beyond the voting system, the importance of both recognising diverse identities and reconciling these with shared national identities and ambitions, and a debate about core British and universal values – and the relationship of that debate to our understanding of the rights and responsibilities of UK citizens. For these reasons it is increasingly important to ask how devolved powers play a role in democratic renewal more generally, and to ensure that arrangements for these support a growing appetite for engagement and conversation between the electorate and their representatives.
There has been a growing concern that councils and local bodies have become increasingly remote from their political and democratic roles and mandates. Engaging citizens as early on as possible would seek to address that growing democratic deficit and sound the public out on their aspirations and preferences for the future of their area. Once a particular devolution deal is in place, we may then ask citizens what they think the priorities for any new devolved arrangement should be. Being able to articulate and understand the value-add of citizens will in and of itself inform the ‘ask’ of local authorities in negotiating local deals; and will form the basis of a positive and ongoing relationship between councils and citizens going forward.
So devolution presents a real opportunity for councils to reconfigure the relationship between citizens and state and to renew public interest in local government. But this need not mean that our councils must reinvent the wheel when already facing significant budgetary pressures – there are plenty of examples from the UK and abroad that councils could draw from, where citizens are grasping new opportunities for legitimate and democratic participation in local government.
Melbourne in Australia, for example, gave residents the opportunity to shape the city’s ten year financial plan. New York, Paris, Kerala and a host of municipalities in Brazil have piloted and implemented levels of participatory budgeting, reinvigorating local democracy amongst the masses. On more specific issues, Vancouver and Toronto in Canada have used panels to help inform major planning and national rail network decisions at a local government level. And the Canadian national government leveraged relationships with local government and local health organisations to seek citizen contributions to the country’s national action plan for mental health. These kinds of examples are few and far between in the UK, but there is reason to be optimistic about the potential for this kind of innovation in participation and engagement in future.
That is because in the UK, for now at least, the case for devolution has been accepted by all mainstream political parties. The more challenging questions that democrats must now grapple with includes ensuring that the sharing of power with citizens is realised, and that the new powers work – not simply to empower local areas economically, but also in the pursuit of social aims such as inclusion and the reinvigoration of local democracy. There is a key role for local government to lead the way in this respect and there’s much that can be drawn from internationally and in pockets around the UK demonstrating that devolution can work for the social and democratic wellbeing of an area as well as for its economic wellbeing.
Photo credit: @N05