Should the lack of evidence keep us from devolving power locally?
Taking an evidence-based approach to policy is rarely questioned. Alongside austerity, its economic logic is particularly obvious. However, trialling wholly new approaches and ambitious reforms is trickier; the evidence base, inherently, can’t be clearly established.
Last week, the City Growth Commission convened an experts’ seminar on metro-regions and the future of local government in which we debated the merits of using international examples to validate devolution in the UK. Speakers Professor Henry Overman from LSE and Dan Corry, the Chief Executive of New Philanthropy Capital, were in agreement that there is currently little to no evidence underpinning recommendations for devolving power to a local level, but diverged on how much this actually matters in convincing the government that it is worth pursuing.
Advocates of decentralisation know this conundrum all too well, but to what extent is it possible for us to justify reforms to governance by using cities elsewhere in Europe and further abroad as case studies?
Overman was wary of the traditional ‘logic chain’ for devolution, which he explained often started from the premise that there were economic benefits to be reaped, in order to then make claims about strengthened social and political democracy. In truth, there is a dearth of evidence from within the UK. Pointing to success stories elsewhere has been tried repeatedly to no avail. A report that washes over the risks will be shelved by Whitehall, and to be credible, a narrative must address concerns about local autonomy deepening spatial inequalities.
We were reminded by Corry that the probability of us ever comprehensively proving the case for devolution is slim to none, but that this isn’t a reason to stall. We know that the set-up we have now works best for London; local politics struggles to engage citizens and businesses in the rest of the UK. Lord Adonis noted last week that more people in Newcastle could name the mayor of London than their own council leader. An agenda for political reform should be tabled on the grounds that staying as we are isn’t an option, especially when other European cities have already taken the leap of faith. Local accountability may be just the bargaining chip that will persuade the Treasury to go ahead with the idea. For example, central government consented to London’s Congestion Charge in part with the comfort that Ken Livingstone – rather than national politicians – would be held to account if it failed.
It is clear there are limits to what we can deduce from the successes or failures of devolution to cities internationally. One of our commissioners, Ben Lucas, made the point that since no other country is as centralised as the UK is, our ability to make a like-for-like comparison is undermined. Furthermore, it’s difficult to understand successful efforts to devolve power given the differing historical and political contexts in which arrangements were brought forward. We also tend to gloss over examples of where devolution has failed.
When we begin to make suggestions about how we should begin the process of decentralisation, the key consideration is what would be in the best long-term interests of the UK when it comes to maintaining international competitiveness, rather than rehashing old arguments about ‘rebalancing the UK’. One of the biggest remaining challenges in defining the specifics of how decentralisation should transpire in the UK: whether particular city-regions or metros should be prioritised, sequentially, because of their existing capacity and growth potential; or whether reforms attempt, simultaneously, to offer something for everyone.
Last week, Greg Clark MP, Minister for Cities, co-authored a study on the wealth of cities with City Growth commissioner (also called Greg Clark). Highlighting the dynamics of competition and collaboration within and between national and international systems of cities may get us further, in advancing arguments for decentralisation, than chasing evidence ever will.
This article was originally posted by the City Growth Commission.