1. Governance
December 11, 2015

Nobody seems to know what devolution would mean for their city. We need to explain it better

By Paul Watson

It’s a good thing from time to time to be reminded that we aren’t all as famous as we think we are – or that what we care about isn’t all they’re talking about in the shops and down the pub.

Last month, the BBC published the results of a survey it had commissioned, showing that 44 per cent of people had never heard of the government’s “Northern Powerhouse”. Another 20 per cent of people, had heard of it, but knew nothing about it.

Just 6 per cent of people felt they knew a lot about it. If this is the level of public awareness about one of the signature devolution schemes of the government, then we have a long way to go to promote the idea of city devolution.

There is hope though. The survey also shows that more than 80 per cent of respondents in the north want local councils to have more control over transport and health. The public have an appetite for greater local leadership and accountability, but need to be convinced that the words that get thrown around this debate are the answer.

There is a familiar pattern with businesses. The Centre for Cities has also produced a survey of businesses, which also show a feeling of disengagement – but also one of optimism that devolution can work. Most small and medium size businesses feel they have not been consulted by local government leaders over devolution proposals. Even in Greater Manchester and Greater Birmingham, where devolution proposals have had the highest profile, most businesses polled did not feel they had had the opportunity to make their voice heard on devolution.

Yet at the same time, a majority thought more local power over transport and planning would benefit them. There is also an opening to push the argument on fiscal devolution: 43 per cent of businesses thought more local power to vary taxes would help them, against 28 per cent who would prefer less local power. Businesses also said they would be most willing to pay more tax if they could see a specific need for extra investment in a local area.

That idea is the key – ordinary people and business leaders need to know specifically what we will do. They have to understand devolution because they are ultimately the coalition of support who will sustain the case we are making to the national government. Just as people know that the bins and the roads are the council, they have to know exactly what the new powers would mean – the buses would join the bins and the roads on the list of things the council controls.

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Businesses need to be actively involved in discussions around what sort of infrastructure investments, tax incentives, and skills programmes would best support a healthy economic environment. In Sunderland, close cooperation between the council and industry has been a major boost to our city, and to good job prospects for young people here. That sort of relationship creates a baseline of trust which is essential. Companies are open to fiscal devolution – if they can be reassured that it means clear, visible investment, rather than vague discussion.

In a way, the two issues of public interest and business engagement go together – they want to see local accountability in exchange for local powers. They have given a very cautious welcome to the argument for local powers, but we also have to start bringing that argument into our everyday work on behalf of our constituents – so they know what we can do, what we will do, and that we will answer for what we do. That is the way forward for devolution.

Cllr Paul Watson is leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group of 26 mid-sized cities.

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