The announcement, in the same week as local and mayoral elections in England, of a levelling up White Paper later this year raises all sorts of questions about whether England will ever be able to get the right balance between the national, regional and local in politics, public administration, economic development and wealth. On all counts, England is highly centralised, with Whitehall dominating so much of our lives and work. Any move away from that will take years, but change really does need to happen soon to reflect the diversity of places and people across England.
It’s not as if attempts haven’t been made before to decentralise and, as the elections attest, we have seen devolution in play for several cities in England alongside the more substantive powers and resources controlled in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. A lot of this began in the final years of the last millennium with the establishment of eight regional assemblies across England in 1998, with London having an elected mayor, to work alongside regional development agencies. The aim was to provide a democratic as well as wider employer and social sector voice on regional issues and to use spatial planning powers, as well as varying degrees of influence over other organisations. The assemblies were a recognition that decisions made more locally were needed to address enormous regional inequalities.
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The assemblies tried to achieve a balance of powers, with a majority of members from elected local government positions and usually a third coming from business, third sector and faith organisations. I was vice-chair of the East Midlands Regional Assembly for a couple of years and remember the ambition we had to join things up better, bring decisions closer to communities and drive sustainable economic and social development. Despite the efforts and the ambition, the assemblies lasted less than 10 years and feel like they existed in a different age.
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I was involved in another attempt, in the mid-2000s, when I worked with Ken Livingstone, then the elected London mayor, and Bill Rammell, the skills and FE minister, to establish the London Skills and Employment Board (LSEB).
The aim was to allow London to get the post-16 skills it needed, with Ken chairing a board mainly of employers, until Boris Johnson was elected mayor and took over. Quite a change in leadership, but little change in thinking about the challenges and opportunities nor in the frustration about the national policy stranglehold on proper empowerment for London. Like a lot of devolution efforts over the years, the LSEB never quite delivered considering the effort, ambition and importance of what it wanted to achieve. Nevertheless, the LSEB was a forerunner for other similar bodies across England’s cities, for the local enterprise partnerships that cover the country and for the powers granted to elected mayors.
All have been hampered by being granted some powers and resources, but not really what they want and need (particularly in employment and skills) to match the challenges. The Whitehall control of policy and funding rules has never weakened, with it being best described as a delegation rather than a devolution of powers and funding. The results have often been more frustration for local leaders without the powers to do things differently to meet local needs.
That’s not to say that there have not been gains. The elected mayors have started to show, through their control of the adult education budget (AEB), suitable local flexibilities and funding rule changes that have helped colleges to deliver for local people and employers. But those gains are modest because of the limit of the devolution – AEB has been devolved, but not apprenticeships budgets, employment programmes and definitely nothing for 16 to 19 education, where many elected mayors would really love to see new powers.
It would be all too easy, therefore, to dismiss the importance of the mayoral elections this week, but I think that would be wrong. What the elected mayors have started to show is that their convening powers can knit together delivery locally in ways that national programmes simply cannot. They have shown that leaders of other organisations want to join things up locally and regionally, and, where given the chance, will do that because the outcomes for people, places and productivity are better. The pandemic has accelerated that desire by accentuating inequalities in our society for different groups and different areas such that there is an even clearer and urgent need to join up economic development, planning, housing, skills and employment delivery.
Perhaps only elected mayors can claim any legitimacy to make that happen? Many mayoral candidates have this squarely in their sights and will seek to move forward rapidly with a coalition of the willing, despite national policy and funding constraints. It could make for interesting challenges or it could lead to rapid progress.
Colleges should be well placed to contribute to that collective and concerted action. The recent skills White Paper promised more autonomy for them to meet local needs, working with employers, and the Skills Accelerator funding will help to put resources in to make it happen. I’ve long-argued that we wouldn’t need grand devolution policies and schemes if Whitehall was more willing to set clear expectations, agree sensible outcomes and have more appropriate accountability systems in place.
The discussions with the Department for Education following the White Paper suggest that thinking is now happening for colleges, and I am hopeful that funding and accountability changes will follow in years to come. It will take time, though, so in the meantime, we all need to look to the elections this week to see if the newly elected mayors will try to use their systems leadership credentials to join things up and build back fairer and better in the coming months.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges