A Democratic Northern Powerhouse

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 9th July 2015

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, currently making its way through the House of Lords, is the flagship legislation that is to allow the Northern Powerhouse to become a reality. It contains the government proposals to devolve power from Westminster to newly-created mayors of combined authorities.

The underlying premise of the Northern Powerhouse strategy is that economic growth outside of the south east can better be facilitated through devolved institutions that have extensive control over fiscal policy. The Cities and Devolution Bill is designed to create those institutions. However, by framing the devolution debate in terms of fiscal policy and economic imperatives, there is a real risk that democracy could be the one to lose out. The importance of economic concerns should not be underestimated, but that should not mean that democracy can be put on the back-burner. After all, the implicit assumption of the Cites Bill is that bringing power closer to people can create better conditions for service delivery and economic growth.

The point is that without popular engagement in these new structures, the benefits that are supposed to accrue from them will remain unrealised. But the only way to make sure that people do engage is by involving them in every step of the process. Regional devolution needs to be a democratic process, not just an economic one.

Yesterday George Osborne announced that he would devolve power to the Greater Manchester region ‘in return for a directly elected mayor’ and that he wanted other City Deals ‘on far-reaching devolution of power in return for the creation of directly elected Mayors’.

The decision to talk about devolution to English and Welsh regions in terms of a quid pro quo raises important questions about the model of governance that is being promoted by the government. By insisting on a mayoral model for devolution (whatever its supposed advantages or disadvantages), the question of the sort of political structures people actually want gets lost. This can lead to a situation in which people don’t care about these potential new layers of government, as they will have no sense of ownership over them. If they don’t care about them, they won’t participate in them – a disaster for what needs to be a democratic reform.

Part of the problem with this approach stems from the tendency to deal with the issue of regional devolution as primarily an economic question. But by foregrounding (undoubtedly crucial) economic questions, less attention is paid to the actual democratic structures that can help create the social and cultural capital necessary for a vibrant economy and society.

These concerns should be addressed by creating an engaged citizenry. In addition to opening up avenues for engagement with local representatives, this can be done by creating the space for deliberation about how these new institutions should be established and what shape they should take. This will allow citizens to claim and feel ownership over any new political structures.

The question of democracy has been underplayed in the debate around the Cities and Devolution Bill. Too much attention is being paid to fiscal policy while the democratic structures that will facilitate this new economic flourishing are left unexamined.

We need public engagement. This is vital for devolution to work; not only for business but for people. People need to care about the political structures that govern their lives. The best way of doing this is by giving citizens a say in what these structures are. Without this, the new mayors will lack the legitimacy to do the things that can really make a difference in people’s lives. And nationally, we need engagement too, on how the various actors that make up the British state, whether based at Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff Bay, Stormont or elsewhere, relate to each other. In our anti-establishment age a structure imposed from above will lack legitimacy. A citizen-led constitutional convention would provide that opportunity. The ERS, alongside a team of academics, will be piloting constitutional conventions this Autumn.

Nobody is denying the importance of economic issues when it comes to devolution, but now it is time to talk about democracy.

Our Chief Executive Katie Ghose looked into the importance of democratic accountability for new metro-mayors in Public Finance Magazine.

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