D Insights
May 10, 2024

The Devolution Arms and Place Race

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The Devolution Arms and Place Race

This week in our series on what to expect from a Labour Government, we covered the ‘devolution arms and place race’. This was an especially timely session following on from the results of last week’s local elections. Below is a summary on how to interpret the results, what they could mean for a General Election and the approach both main parties take towards devolution.

How to think about elections

The first thing to bear in mind when considering the results of last week’s elections is that they are not all the same – this year we had elections on police and crime commissioners in England, the London Assembly, 11 Mayoral elections and the Blackpool South byelection, which probably gives the clearest picture of what might happen at a GE. Regional personalities are starting to come into greater focus, where they haven’t in the past. The importance and value of local representation is gaining greater autonomy from the GE, and we are starting to see more split voting across the two.

Local factors also played a larger role relative to that of General Elections. Not just in terms of influencing outcomes, but also in what they can tell us about internal party health. First, the more Councillors a party has, the greater ‘ground forces’ it can mobilise to build a local presence ahead of the General Election. This is a strategy most obviously pursued by the Liberal Democrats, who put local issues first in locals as a way of pitch rolling for a candidate’s position in the General Election. Second, the locals will have a significant effect on party morale, with Labour buoyed by a vindication that their strategy is working and the Conservatives frustrated at a failure to see signs of a recovery.

The local elections: A big win for Labour?

Labour’s vote distribution was very different from the equivalent period 4 years ago, where it was stacking support in areas with Labour incumbents in place. Numerically progress was being made, but vote distribution was not where it needed to be.

This is why targeting has been a priority for this year’s elections, with successful results as epitomised by breaking through in Hartlepool and Rushmore council.

There has also been some Internal reflection and analysis on the effect Gaza might have had. 2nd and 3rd generation Muslim communities did not default to Labour support as previous generations have - are becoming a more hefty and politically active demographic.

Maintaining a voting base can be more challenging for Labour than Conservatives given its diversity, but this time around it appears Labour might have a complicated (albeit possible) path to success, where the Conservative base has stronger ideological tension within it. While not uncontroversial, Natalie Elphicke’s defection could be interpreted as a sign of Labour’s ability to tolerate voters and supporters who have in the past been critical or dismissive of the party.

Devolution arms and place race:

No, the Devolution Arms is not a favoured pub of metro mayors….

In previous elections, the Conservatives have pursued a clearer and more committed devolution strategy than labour, but that is no longer the case. It has been interesting to see the ‘arms race’ take place between Michael Gove and Angela Rayner around who could set out a better stall on devolution. In some ways Keir Starmer is actually more radical on devolution than others in Labour’s leadership because he didn’t come from the Trade Union movement, which traditionally focuses campaigning on national issues.

It is clearly now a priority for both main political parties. The Conservative approach has been ‘deal’ focused, with Combined Authorities taking on certain  responsibilities from a menu offered by central govt. Can this menu based approach really survive beyond this Parliament, as it will result in a patchwork of different organisational and funding models required across different parts of the country? If it can’t, we should consider where the devolution lines be drawn? Should it form the next Government, Labour will need to come together to decide where the priorities are, such as social care, housing, local schools and roads to overcome the ‘constitutional inertia’ we have around these issues.

A quick note on Scotland:

Devolution still means swapping central control from Westminster to Holyrood - previously locally devolved authority is now centralised to Holyrood! A very different conversation to be had there than in England.

Barriers to progress:

Labour is looking at a shift to a more active local infrastructure funding model over S106 agreements, CILs or ILs, which are more retroactive. Put the investment in up front - the funding isn’t quite right at the moment and needs to be fixed, and is a key priority in their devolution agenda.  

Labour is also taking a position on housing, preferring to characterise it as a shortage rather than a crisis. Labour has committed to more ambitious housing targets, which have the advantage of giving  a level of political ‘cover’ to local politicians who have to front up controversial reclassifications of land (especially greenbelt). The Fabian Society also wrote a report last year on building new homes, setting out Combined Authorities as a significant ground delivery mechanisms for meeting these goals, and with other recommendations from the report now adopted as Labour positions.  

Also worth thinking about social care - it is such a huge priority for local authorities and is very resource and budget intensive. Rachel Reeves has suggested finding a better way to fund and deliver it would take a massive burden off them and allow more focus on regional growth.

There is currently a key gap in the potential devolved governance model: there is not currently an established forum or process for managing discussion between central and regional government - at the moment they default to personalities and personal relationships, which doesn’t provide consistent delivery for constituents.

How do we get the good of devolution without the bad?

Whilst effective devolution can bring benefits in terms of more effective and efficient implementation, it can also fall foul of the  tension that can play out between cities/regions. In Leeds and Bradford, for example, Bradford has historically opposed devolution with Leeds at the heart of it for fear of domination. This has the potential to create  tension in the combined authority model – the need for consensus that balances the needs of larger and smaller communities alike.

To overcome the “urban core / wider area” tensions, Greater Manchester have a long established political process that operates informally alongside the CA’s formal decision making. In effect they’ve built and maintained trust that overall, everyone will see some benefit – but this has taken 40 years to establish!

As the regions take over specific responsibilities, they will  need to address a number of skills and capability gaps- for example the lack of planning officers. Because this role isn’t well understood or appreciated, local and regional planning gets gummed up. Solving this is essential to making devolution actually work well, even if the underlying policy is solid in principle.

How can industry help?

National business have a key role to play in providing a ‘national’ context to complement the regional focus for devolved authorities. Whilst trying to avoid the ‘not invented here’ syndrome, this will be particularly important when it comes to sharing proven approaches to solving challenges that exist across multiple regions. .

The views expressed in this podcast are those of the contributors and do not reflect the views of The D Group.  

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