The word 'devolution' figures large in the UK at the moment.  You'd think the idea of devolving power closer to the local level would be very akin to what Transition is working to achieve, but as Kerry-Anne Mendoza puts it, in reality it represents "the greatest shift of power from local to central government since the days of Thatcher". Professor Bob Hudson is a public policy specialist at Durham University. I was recently so impressed by an article he wrote for the London School of Economics website called The Four Defecits of the English Devolution Process that I tracked him down and interviewed him a few days later.  You can hear (or download) our conversation in full here, or read the lightly-edited transcript below: 

'Devolution' is a word which sounds great. Who could object to devolution? But the article you wrote raises the question of whether is devolution a good thing or not. Surely it is, isn’t it?

Bob Hudson on his holidays. Bob Hudson on his holidays.It’s like apple pie, it’s definitely a good thing. Of course it’s a good thing because it addresses some serious problems in principle. Three in particular that I would highlight. 

Number one: the UK, certainly England, is a ridiculously centralised system. So local government is exceedingly weak and power and finance reside at central level to a degree which is highly unusual across the developed world. That does need to be addressed.

Secondly, as a consequence of that, local government, which at one time was a source of civic pride and a centre of provincial power, is now little more than a hollowed-out commissioning organisation. Central government is too strong and local government is uniquely weak in terms of its history over the past 150 years.

Thirdly, there’s the London problem. England itself is disproportionately dominated by London. So any government that comes along and says “we’re going to address these problems”, which is essentially what the chancellor George Osbourne in particular was saying, you can see how that sort of rhetoric is very attractive.  Osbourne has said that his proposal for a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ amounts to "a revolution in the way we govern England".  He said "I say to these great cities, it is time for you to take control of your own affairs".

It pressed a lot of buttons for people up and down the country, so in principle this is a political and policy winner.  The problem, as with most things, is the devil residing in the detail...

So what is wrong with it?

That question takes us to the first problem that we would want to talk about. Who decides what will happen? Well everything is decided at central government level. In particular, and I just mentioned George Osbourne, it’s quite odd that the whole thing is being driven by the Treasury rather than the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). So it’s Osbourne’s particular baby.

The way it works is that officials from the Treasury, certainly with people from DCLG too, enter into secret bespoke discussions with whoever approaches them and say “please may I have a slice of your devolution pizza?” They say “well, OK, we’ll come and talk to you.”

These discussions have all been held behind closed doors so at best it’s a discussion between the Treasury, the Department of Communities and Local Government, the leaders of the local councils who will probably be statutorily constituted as a combined authority and the Local Enterprise Partnerships, the LEPs.

The first problem with that is where does it leave the citizens?  The citizen has no say, has no seat round the table and is not party to any of these discussions, which is an odd thing because you might think in principle devolution is at least in good part about devolving power to the local citizenry. Yet here are deals being hatched that exclude the citizen’s voice. I think that’s our first problem, discussions taken in private.

So, what are Local Enterprise Partnerships and how have they become so powerful in such a short time?

LEPs were the substitutes for the Regional Development Agencies or RDAs. RDAs were abolished once the coalition took off in 2010, they were abolished over a timespan of a year or two. So LEPs are the replacement.

LEPs are not statutory bodies, so in that sense there’s no clear channels of public accountability. They are basically a group of self-selecting business people who come together on a local basis and have the power to bid to Regional Growth Funds to get money for local enterprise development. They do have governing bodies and essentially the government’s arrangement is a mix of local business people again, as I said, pretty much self-selected because it’s done on a voluntary basis and members of the combined authority. So it’s a mix of politicians and local business people who sit on the LEP governing body.

It’s not a mix that always works well. LEPs have crept into a powerful position and sometimes central government will say certain things may be permissible at local level, for example increasing the business rate by 2%, but only if the LEP agrees. So LEPs are accreting little bits of power here and there even though they have no statutory basis for exercising their powers.

I guess most people will not have heard of LEPs. They are fairly shadowy and it would be fair to argue that if they’re going to exercise an increasing range of powers, they should be put on a statutory basis and there should be proper accountability to local people.

I thought it was fascinating in your article when you mentioned that Local Enterprise Partnerships resisted any examination of what they were doing on the grounds that it might "scare business". That's just extraordinary.

I would guess any self-respecting LEP is feeling a little bit awkward itself about all of this. LEPs are not statutory. They’re not accountable in any way to people living in a local area. They’re run on a shoestring, yet here they are having quite a significant voice round the table. That will be one of their concerns, that we need to talk about these things privately. This is part of what I’ve been calling the 'democratic deficit'.

The second thing that perturbs me a lot about this is that as well as having private discussions that exclude the people, the government then goes on to require a form of governance that they prefer and which people have no choice over. I’m referring here to the requirement in the Act of Parliament now, that in order to get a deal, most places (the South West might be an exception because of its geography) must have a directly elected Mayor.
Take where I live: I’m up here in the North East. We will have one person whose remit will run from the Scottish Borders right down to the Tees Valley. It’s a vast area. One person running a swathe of important public affairs, and no-one’s been asked if they would like that model. It’s completely unclear where it leaves thousands and thousands of local councillors whose services will probably no longer be required.

What does this tell us about localism and the Big Society and all of that stuff that was very much heralded at the beginning of this government. It was going to give all this power back to local people and so on and so on. Now that we’re a few years into it and we’re starting to be able to see what it actually looks like, what do you think it tells us about the motivation behind it? Who are they doing it for?

My view of the Big Society is that it was simply an attempt to cut costs and transfer services out to the third sector but without the necessary funding to accompany that transfer. You don’t hear a lot of talk these days about the Big Society, do you? So where are we left with this?

We’re left with councils cut to the bone and the suspicion through the whole devolution policy that what the government wants to do is transfer responsibility for funding and public spending cuts to a more local level. Regional, sub-regional, currently it’s with the local councils. That’s probably best not described as devolution. It’s best described as delegation of responsibility for funding. It can even apply to the NHS, in particular in Greater Manchester, which so far is the only devolution deal which has involved fairly clear agreement to take on responsibility for NHS services.
There are some very important and worrying questions being raised by all of this. What we’re slowly doing is taking the national out of a lot of services that have been national and making them local. In principle it has some attractions but in the current economic and political climate, I’d be very worried about taking responsibilities on when the funding was disappearing.

A lot of this stuff is being justified on the grounds of economic growth. What do you think we run the risk of sacrificing in our desperate attempt to achieve economic growth?

If there’s one implicit objective of the devolution deal, it’s the idea that it will spur economic growth. This is George Osborne’s real focus. You devolve to core cities and through devolving some powers over transport and regeneration you get the benefit of agglomeration. That may well work in certain geographies but even if you did get more growth – I think it’s a bit unclear exactly why you would – but even if you did, more regional growth is one thing. How you use the proceeds of that is another.

If you take the Northern Powerhouse as the most frequently cited example, it may well be good for Manchester, maybe even for Leeds, but once you get out into the rural areas and the older industrial areas, it’s not easy to see how this will be of benefit in these wider geographies. It’s a question about the type of growth and the proceeds of growth as well as whether you get the growth at all.

If people read your article and feel like something very valuable, something very precious is either slipping through their fingers or being wrenched from their grasp depending on which way they look at it, what can they do about it?

That’s a good question, isn’t it?  We’re looking at a whole range of different ‘devo deals’. What the Chancellor did late last year was to invite local areas, regions and sub regions to put in a bid for a deal, and they were given seven weeks to do it. Seven weeks. Thirty eight such bids were received. Most of them were not considered strong enough to take forward, so we only have about half a dozen that are currently going forward.

I guess you could stop these deals in their tracks if one or more local councils who were in the combined authority said “we don’t think this is a good deal, sorry, we’re pulling out. We just don’t want to go ahead with it.” You would then suffer a loss of course, because you would be seen as a poor team player. There are more powers coming along, even if these are delegated powers, and there’s a bit of money at stake. Always follow the money! Council spending is being crucified.

But as part of the devo deals, the Treasury comes along and says “if you sign a deal on our terms, we will give you x amount of money.” My own area, the North East is pretty typical. The deal up here with the North East Combined Authority is £30 million per year for 30 years. Incidentally, I have never known a political pledge that was ever honoured over 30 years! But that’s the deal on offer.