Ben Houchen: From upping political engagement to being free to innovate, devolution has huge potential

Devolution has received a mixed reception across the political spectrum, but it has the power to inspire political engagement, and with that to increase the participation of citizens in the apportionment of power, responsibility, and freedom.

As it stands today, nine areas of England have metro mayors, and the other three home nations have their own legislatures. The comparative advantages and disadvantages of these approaches are often discussed, but with the exception of London, the metro mayoralties are new institutions. This form of devolution is in its infancy, and the perception of its success or failure is more likely to be judged on how it develops from this point onwards than on its results so far.

There have been six separate ‘devo-deals’ in Greater Manchester — the flagship home of the Cameron-Osborne-era devolution agenda — each conferring additional powers and resources. In context, Manchester was even ahead of London in terms of devolved health and social care, while powers are still being mooted for the other ‘city regions’. This is clear evidence of the transfer of powers happening at different speeds in different areas, as intended.

In both London and Greater Manchester, the mayors have the responsibilities that are, in other areas, shouldered by the police and crime commissioners and fire authorities. As it stands, those latter roles could hypothetically be merged with existing mayoral roles, where police and fire authority boundaries are contiguous with mayoral areas.

Scotland is alone in having gained significant devolved power over taxation, which, if wielded by a government minded to respect or even extend individual freedom, could be a powerful tool. Under current rules, the Scottish Government can add or remove up to ten pence in the pound from each income-tax band, as well as controlling air passenger duty (APD). Metro mayors in the English regions have the power to levy a precept of up to 2 per cent of council tax, and some are allowed to retain 100 per cent of business rates.

The Scottish Government has chosen to lift the tax burden slightly for low earners, and to attempt to balance this out with increased taxes on higher salaries. Only time will tell what the results of this are, but the principle exists: different parts of the UK can have different rates of tax. While regional income-tax variations would undoubtedly raise eyebrows at the Treasury — given the technical complexity of implementing such a scheme — there is no overarching moral reason why voters in England shouldn’t have the same power over the taxes they pay.

Indeed, a combination of powers over the retention of business rates, and the ability to scrap minor tariffs like APD, could give metro mayors the tools they need to supercharge their regions’ economies. Of course, some people might choose to elect high-tax, anti-growth collectivists, and be content to pay the economic price. But gaining the chance to have a greater say over economic policy — and seeing the consequences of their democratic choices in action — would, I believe, most likely result, overall, in people opting for lower taxes, more growth, and more jobs.

As a relatively new form of local government, today’s metro mayors are helping to define their own roles in a way that more established representatives like MPs and councillors cannot. By empowering them in this way, the Government has given them free rein to try new things. The freedom to innovate — in a way in which the public sector typically can’t — has the possibility of yielding benefits of national significance. In essence, each mayor can make his or her region a test bed for policies that, if successful, could be adopted in other parts of the UK. Whether this be a competition for GovTech start-ups to provide new solutions, or improvements to bond-finance for manufacturing businesses, devolution has already led to better standard ways of doing things.

The use of technology to reduce the time burden and frustration of dealing with necessary state actors is an area in which metro mayors have huge scope to make their respective marks. The way we deal with local councils today seems anachronistic to many young people, whose interaction with many other organisations is through their phones and smart devices. There is absolutely no reason why people should expect a lower level of customer service from the local council than that they receive from their neighbourhood pizza shop. Yet, local councils are hardly known for being on the cutting edge of technology, and budgetary constraints keep them mostly focused on providing essential services — so such progress might not come directly from them. Metro mayors, on the other hand, whose constituencies cover multiple council areas, could take a hand in developing digital services that make life better for people.

All of this sounds great. In fact, the idea of a 5G-enabled region, with smart motorways, integrated transport, happy council customers, and healthier people is pretty much the dream, from a mayoral point of view. But, to quote a popular comic book character: with great power comes great responsibility. It is already well-documented that the Chinese Government has been implementing social credit scores for its subjects, partly based on online behaviour. And that, closer to home, local government officers have been quick to use anti-terror powers to spy on residents. With these things in mind, robust safeguards will be needed as the public sector innovates, whether or not this progress is driven by metro mayors.

One area I am particularly keen to explore, however — where technology can provide increased customer choice — is on-demand transport. This has already been tried on a small scale in the UK, with both commercial and subsidised models, and the results are encouraging. There are areas, poorly served by both public transport and private taxis, where people are dependent on the state for some or all of their mobility, and it is in these areas that an on-demand model would provide both better public services and more choice.

It is clear that devolution is a policy area with huge untapped potential. We have done well so far to avoid a one-size fits all model, and, because of this, its benefits have already started to be seen.

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