Devolution has been heralded as the solution to a myriad of social problems. Through the decentralisation of power, it is hoped that devolution will boost economic growth and improve public service provision, while also providing a pathway to democratic renewal and helping keep the UK together.
Devolution has the potential to transform the UK by ensuring balanced and sustainable economic growth and allowing for greater communication between local government and the communities it serves. However, public consultation must be at the heart of the devolution deals for this goal to be achieved.
Strategies and targets established in Whitehall seldom reflect or respond to the real needs of communities. Local residents are well placed to provide valuable insight about the areas in which they live and work, leading to a more effective decision making process with better informed authorities.
But devolution will only be a success if people support the new governmental structures being implemented – and especially the role of elected mayors. When elected mayors, outside of London, were first touted, they were met with widespread rejection. In the English mayoral referendums in 2012, ten out of eleven cities rejected them. Now, cities such as Manchester and Newcastle, who initially voted against the mayors, will have them imposed as part of the devolution deals.
Next year will mark the first year when the mayors of the new combined authorities are elected. It is vital that the public is engaged, otherwise we could see similarly low levels of turnout to the 2012 elections of police and crime commissioners (just 15.1 per cent across the country).
In order to avoid a repeat of that fiasco, and to ensure the new elected mayors are seen as legitimate, there needs to be a high level of public engagement.
Both national and local government have put considerable political capital behind the devolution agenda. However, this political capital needs to be supported by real monetary commitment.
Unfortunately, the continuing austerity agenda means that the combined authorities will not have significant additional sums of money available for investment: there is a real risk that transferring power and responsibility will not be enough by itself to realise the potential of devolution.
For public consultation to work, authorities need sufficient financial resources. They also need to commit to genuine citizen involvement and provide creative spaces and platforms for open discussion.
However, the responsibility for public engagement should not fall on government alone. Higher education institutions (HEIs) are recognised as key players in the cities and regions in which they are based, are often major employers and are ideally placed to support local authorities.
In order to support combined authorities effectively, universities will need to position themselves as sources of knowledge beyond the traditional science, engineering and medical departments. HEIs should embed strategies for civic engagement into teaching and research, fostering a greater understanding amongst students and academics of the social, economic, cultural and environmental issues facing local communities, while also helping to inform public debates.
Academic work in the health sector could provide model. HEIs do not only provide research and testing of new health interventions: they also help to address pressing public health challenges. Social science can help the NHS and local authorities understand the beliefs and values that influence unhealthy lifestyles, as well as the structural causes of poverty and ill health, contributing vital understanding that may well lead to a more efficient and effective health system.
Ensuring devolution achieves its promise for local communities is no mean feat – but done right, it can help transform our country. A people-centric approach to devolution with community engagement and public consultation at its heart will help authorities create economic growth that is sustainable and inclusive.
Universities, with their academic calibre, ability to host large scale events and place at the heart of cities, could provide space for open discussion. They can also help identify how these limited resources can be used most effectively to address the challenges local authorities are facing and to support long term economic, social, cultural and environmental development.
What’s more, universities can help provide a platform for community involvement and spaces in which citizens can discuss and debate what the new structures will mean for them. Sufficient financial resources, commitment and genuine citizen involvement will be crucial to the long term success of devolution.
Professor Mark Shucksmith OBE is director of the Newcastle University Institute for Social Renewal.
Newcastle University’s pamphlet ‘The Devolution Revolution: Empowering local communities to drive change’ is available to download here