English devolution – same struggle, different scale

By Kevan Nelson

“…a city can do well (in terms of capital accumulation) while its people (apart from a privileged class) and the environment do badly…” (Harvey, 2013, p. 29)


The Government is continuing to pursue its project to shrink the state. Public services – and especially local council services – are being devastated by a sustained attack on their funding and viability. In this overarching context, George Osborne’s championing of devolution to England’s cities should be met with suspicion. As trade unionists we need to understand the weaknesses of the Government’s devolution agenda in terms of democratic accountability, economic development and the financing of public services. At the same time, we need to seize on the opportunities presented by the increasing importance of the city-region scale of governance and policy-making to protect our members and communities.

Osborne’s Devolution

(i) Democratic accountability

The Government’s devolution agenda is largely built around a patchwork of deals with groups of councils in our big cities. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 builds on 2009 legislation that provided for the creation of combined authorities by groups of two or more local authorities. The first combined authority was established in Greater Manchester in 2011 followed in April 2014 by several others in major conurbations across the north of England including Liverpool and Sheffield. Since November 2014 the Government has negotiated devolution deals in several city-regions, notably in Manchester – first covering local government, transport, police and skills followed by health and social care in February 2015. The combined authority or city-region level is becoming a more important scale of governance and policy-making, with plans for economic prosperity and public service delivery increasingly being drawn up at this level.

The current approach contrasts with that adopted in the Blair years, when devolution involved the creation of new national political structures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Devolution in England stalled in the North East in 2004 when the first and only referendum to take place on the creation of a regional assembly was rejected emphatically by 78% of voters on a 48% turnout. The idea of a comprehensive system of regional parliaments was dropped and instead we have seen piecemeal initiatives emerge based on cities rather than regions.

The Government’s idea for democratic accountability at the city-region level is not through a new assembly or parliament but through the election of a mayor. The Government has made the devolution of powers to combined authority areas conditional on their acceptance of having a directly-elected mayor, with George Osborne saying: “I’m not imposing directly elected mayors on anyone but I will not settle for less.”

A mayoral governance model in itself causes concern. The author Peter Latham has argued that the mayoral system is the “optimum internal management arrangement for privatised local state services nullifying the role of elected councillors”. At their worst, a mayor can become a remote figure from the public while being easily accessible to private interests. The behind-closed-doors discussions that led to the initial deals between city-regions and the Treasury, and their pro-business rhetoric both add to concerns about the shape and culture of devolved governance arrangements. While trade unions are rarely mentioned in devolution document, there are frequent references to business, the private sector and to Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs). In the Liverpool City Region, the chair of the LEP even has voting rights on the combined authority – an extreme and currently unique example of private sector inclusion in formal governance arrangements.

(ii) Economic development

In the absence of a regional layer of governance with a responsibility for economic development, combined authorities are cast in the role of promoting growth and productivity.

Boosterism and hype has been conspicuous in local deal submissions with competing claims about the ‘fastest economic growth’ and being at the ‘heart of the Northern Powerhouse!’ There is little consideration given to how local politicians’ economic ambitions may be thwarted due to the key economic levers remaining in Westminster and national policy decisions being taken in the interests of the City of London more than the needs of the cities of the North of England.

There is a danger that a ‘competition model’ could dominate which focuses on the relative position of cities on economic performance league tables rather than on quality of life. A philosophy of competition has been criticised as condemning “the majority of spaces, people and organisations to the status of ‘losers’” (Davies, 2016). Cut-throat competition between cities to make themselves most attractive to private investment cannot be a basis for more equal and cohesive communities.

It is important to guard against a model of economic development that involves shiny new buildings in the city centre and little benefit elsewhere. Pre-dating devolution we have the example of Liverpool One, where a smart new shopping district has been achieved at the cost of losing a huge swathe of public land to private ownership. Engels understood the danger of gentrification being to the economic benefit of property developers and speculators but not of workers:

“…the scandalous alleys disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise by the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else…” (Engels, 1935, pp. 74-7).

(iii) Public services

The devolution agenda involves very little new money being made available at the local level for cash-strapped public services. There is a strong concern that Osborne is seeking to devolve the administration of (and associated blame for) service cuts. Osborne’s recent advocacy of greater fiscal autonomy for local authorities – with his ambition to move to 100% funding from Council Tax, business rates and local revenues by 2020 (in 2010, the proportion was 20%) – can be seen as addressing a key concern of those who have long been critical of the centralised UK state. But for those living in areas of high social need and low economic means, the promise of fiscal autonomy from this chancellor sounds like a threat of permanent austerity and underfunding. There remains a need to combine local decision-making over public spending with solidaristic transfers of funding from wealthy to deprived areas.

What we can do at a city-region scale

How then do we respond to devolution as trade unionists? The TUC have usefully set out a three-pronged response to devolution entailing workforce partnership agreements, progressive procurement policies and engagement with civil society. I think we need to adapt to the emergence of the city-region as an important scale of governance and policy-making in a number of ways.

(i) A new scale for employment and economic development

We must work to protect the millions of trade union members who work in the delivery of public services whose employment could be affected by decisions taken on a city-region scale. The need for workforce engagement mechanisms is most immediately apparent in Greater Manchester, where the integration of social care and health is tied-up with the devolution agenda. The North West TUC has co-ordinated trade union input into a very good agreement on workforce engagement. This agreement is important because it ensures that the city-region level is not used as an avenue to circumvent local consultation structures and means that the union voice will be heard. We must ensure that cross-boundary public service design does not negatively affect members who work for local councils and NHS trusts.

Engagement at a city-region level is therefore necessary to defend existing employment standards, but it also presents opportunities to improve labour conditions more broadly. We need to push for decision-makers at the city-region level to endorse and pursue policies that lead to more in-house provision of public services, better environmental standards, and quality employment.

More fundamentally, we can promote policies where quality health and social care, sustainable transport, accessible broadband, and social housing take precedence over vanity tower blocks and a post industrial service economy based on low pay and low quality employment. We need to oppose the ‘competitive city’ model and instead join the calls for a ‘grounded city’ (Engelen et al, 2014) where the emphasis is not on wooing capital investment but on improving the urban quality of life. We can support and contribute to efforts to promote ‘inclusive growth’ at the city-region scale.

(ii) A new scale for planning public service delivery

In Greater Manchester, devolution involves councils and NHS organisations looking afresh at service provision on a city-region scale. This has resulted in a GM Health and Social Care Plan which identifies the strategic importance of services including nursery provision and elderly care, and policy areas such as skills. There is some scope here for arguing the case at a GM level that there is a need for a skilled, well-rewarded and unionised in-house workforce in the delivery of key care functions and for developing high-quality training opportunities for young people. Lobbying that achieves commitments at a city-region level can cascade down to local employers.

(iii) A new scale of governance

Public opinion and the way people vote in city-regions is different to that in England as a whole. If, for example, we have decision-making being taken at a Liverpool City Region scale in a way that is consistent with people’s views and values, we can anticipate a more progressive politics than in the wider country. Osborne’s version of devolution has to at least pay lip-service to the wishes and consent of the public.

To take this opportunity, trade unions need to work with a range of organisations to mobilise and amplify public opinion in our big cities. Where people do not support neoliberal policies we need to find ways of making this clear. We need to put pressure on city-region level decision-makers to influence what they do and not allow them to slip into the role of efficiently administering centrally-determined cuts. Where central government is not providing them with sufficient resources to meet the demands of the people, they in turn need to be demanding more from central government. We cannot allow city-region decision-makers to view insufficient funding as an unchangeable fact or an interesting challenge for their public management skills. There is an emerging tendency in some Greater Manchester-level documents to identify the cause of pressures on our public services in the irresponsible behaviour of individuals rather than in cuts or wider socioeconomic factors. Unions have challenged this in responding to the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Plan and we must have zero tolerance for efforts to blame the victims of austerity for their own poverty or to seek to divide people against each other.

We cannot assume that local politicians will necessarily take better or more progressive decisions than central government just by virtue of their being local. Robert Tressell’s fictional account of a town council meeting in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists describes the self-righteous and self-serving activities of Alderman Sweater and Councillors Didlum and Grinder. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw local company owners and industrialists often serving as council leaders and we can still see the busts, portraits and statues of real-life Sweaters in our municipal buildings. This era was long-lived, and it was only after the second world war that major cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool first elected Labour councils. We must be wary of efforts to promote an uncritical localism through portraying the Victorian period as a time of “high-minded… ideals” that created “a public realm predisposed towards social justice…” (Hunt, 2016). The local state under capitalism, just as at national level, is a site of competing class interests, and it is up to trade unions to play our part in influencing how power is exercised at a city-region level. Devolution marks a shift in the scale of the arena in which class conflict takes place – it does not make class conflict any less real.



Davies, W. (2016) ‘How ‘competitiveness’ became one of the great unquestioned virtues of contemporary growth.’ http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/the-cult-of-competitiveness/

Engelen, E., Johal, S., Salento, A. and Williams, K. (2014) ‘How to build a fairer city’, Guardian, Wednesday 24 September.   http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/sep/24/manifesto-fairer-grounded-city-sustainable-transport-broadband-housing

Engels, F. (1935) The Housing Question, New York: International Publishers.

Harvey, D. (2013) Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, London: Verso.

Hunt, T. (2016) Speech delivered at Centre for Cities event: ‘Tristram Hunt MP on the Urban Century’. Monday 18 April. Transcript and video available at: http://www.centreforcities.org/multimedia/event-catch-up-city-horizons-tristram-hunt-mp-urban-century/

Latham, P. (2011) The state and local government: Towards a new basis for ‘local democracy’ and the defeat of big business control, Croydon: Manifesto.

Tressell, R. (2004) The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, London: Penguin.


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