Ministers must democratise the devolution agenda

17 Nov 15

With today’s agreement of devolution deals for Birmingham and Liverpool city regions, it is full steam ahead for the government’s devolution project. But one question remains to be answered: who decides where it’s headed?

Last weekend, the first ever ‘Citizens’ Assemblies’ in the UK on local government finished in Southampton. Run by universities from across the country together with the Electoral Reform Society and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the project aimed to give local people what politicians haven’t so far given them – a say on the devolution deals currently going through.

The ‘Democracy Matters’ project – based on assemblies in both the Solent region (in Southampton) and South Yorkshire (in Sheffield which has reached a devolution deal) – offered citizens the chance to debate the possibilities of power transfers for the first time. Thus far, many feel they’ve been left out in the cold. That was certainly a message that resounded strongly at both assemblies. A poll released on Monday showed that two-thirds of Northerners haven’t even heard of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – a sign of the extent to which the public have been engaged in the discussions. 

But what we’ve found is that when you give people a chance to engage, they leap at the opportunity. YouGov picked a broadly representative sample of the local population to come for two full weekends of learning, deliberation and then voting on the areas’ devolution plans. Once they got clued up, they jumped into the debate.

It’s a stark contrast to the current approach to devolution. This month the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee put out a report on the City Deals – an earlier wave of the government’s devolution plans. It was fairly scathing of the lack of accountability in deciding on these deals.

The report sheds a lot of light on considerations, or lack thereof, of democracy when it comes to devolution.

“The Department for Communities and Local Government has not made clear who is accountable for public funds that have been devolved through City Deals,” it says. As things stand, “unelected Local Enterprise Partnerships play a big role in planning but the financial risk of failure lies with council tax payers locally. This disconnect between decisions and who pays is a concern.”

It’s a concern indeed – if the unelected body messes up, we as taxpayers will pick up the bill. Yet, even the deals done by these bodies are being made behind closed doors. We can’t even see the problems before they’re implemented.

The report goes on to argue that “the department [should] work with local areas to strengthen local scrutiny and accountability arrangements and to ensure public engagement both in the negotiation and implementation of future devolved initiatives.” It is something the Electoral Reform Society and many others have been saying for some time.

There are currently over 30 devolution deals going through. Only one of them has the word ‘democracy’ as a core part of its governance proposals. 

So it’s uplifting that local authorities in both areas showed a strong willingness to engage with the Citizens’ Assembly process – following its development, addressing the participants as speakers and promising to note the results. There was rigorous examination and genuine debate between both the assembly and the councils that strengthened the assemblies themselves.

If the public don’t get a say in how their local democracies are changing, these arrangements are unlikely to last. How can we make devolution sustainable if it doesn’t have public backing? How can the public trust the outcomes if the deals were made behind closed doors? And how will the public get behind the new powers if they were locked out of any decision-making?

As we’ve shown in Sheffield and Southampton, there’s another way. The implications for governance with deliberative processes like the Citizens’ Assemblies were significant

It’s not just that decisions which have popular support are more likely to last. Decisions informed by local people are more likely to work ­­too – people know about their local areas, they know their situations and what works for them.

Now, it’s time for the whole devolution agenda to be democratised. We need scrutiny and transparency to make sure these deals are the best they can be. Dressing them up as ‘sensitive’ or ‘confidential’, as some authorities have done, is damaging for people’s faith in the process, and can only lead to inferior outcomes.

Let’s open up this great constitutional shift taking place. It would be a historic loss if it was left to just the ‘great and the good’ to decide Britain’s democratic future.

Giving power to local authorities is good news. But the final settlements should be in the hands of local people themselves – not a select few.

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