Published 8 July 2016
Amongst all the political turmoil of recent weeks, it is easy to forget that it was only a year ago that David Cameron, fresh from his general election victory of May 2015, promised to bring the country together, by ruling the UK as ‘One Nation’.
Central to that ‘One Nation’ agenda was a radical programme of English devolution, encapsulated by George Osborne’s vision of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, with English cities given the tools to build an alternative power-base to the political and economic might of London and the South East.
English devolution has become a significant source of energy for modern Conservatism
It is one of the more interesting developments in British politics: English devolution has become a significant source of energy for modern Conservatism. Not only are the party’s most intellectual thinkers ardent localists, but its more pragmatic politicians spotted an opportunity: to put Labour on the back foot, driving a wedge between the Party in London and its post-industrial heartland in the North.
The first round of devolution deals focused on unleashing the economic potential of cities, with powers over transport, skills and economic development devolved to combined authorities. Following the May 2015 election, though, devolution began to embrace public service reform, primarily as a means to achieve more integrated services, built to fit citizens’ needs, rather than institutional silos. Justice devolution seemed to be the logical next step – providing an opportunity for local leaders to shift spending from managing the consequences of social failure (prison, probation) to dealing with the root causes (early intervention and prevention).
It is true that, in recent months, English devolution has appeared to run into the sand. Even without the paralysing effect of the EU referendum, the process had already started throwing up a number of difficulties.
Concerns have been raised about governance and accountability. For example, in the West Midlands, the Police and Crime Commissioner has (rightly) been critical of the combined authority for attempting to shackle the powers of the newly proposed metro-mayor, threatening to oppose the transfer of police powers unless assurances can be given that the mayor will be a genuinely powerful figure. Others have pointed to the lack of public buy-in to devolution deals, some of which have variously been described as an ‘elite-driven’ and ‘top down’ process, with little to no input from the public.
The system needs to be re-wired
Yet despite these problems, justice devolution is worth persevering with. Despite falling overall crime, the criminal justice system, as currently configured, is struggling to cope with growing demand. Lack of shared accountability and resource pressures mean that costs are being shunted from one part of the system to another and there is insufficient focus on victims. According to the Public Accounts Committee, the MoJ has exhausted the scope to make more cuts without further detriment to performance. The system needs to be re-wired so that local leaders are given both the means and incentive to pull services together in dealing with the causes of offending, rather than managing their consequences later on. Devolution can deliver this.
Greater Manchester is moving forward with justice devolution
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the place closest to fulfilling this vision is Greater Manchester, whose Mayor has just signed a new memorandum of understanding with the MoJ – agreeing the next phase of justice devolution. This is not a simplistic grab for power, but an agreement to establish a new kind of relationship, whereby the combined authority are seen as equal partners in the design and delivery of criminal justice services, rather than waiting for instructions from Whitehall. It would not be at all surprising if London, whose new leaders have their own ambitions for justice devolution, were to follow suit.
In the Autumn, the think-tank Governup will publish a paper that will set out the case for a more devolved justice system – one in which local leaders are empowered to join up services and deal with crime at source, rather than reacting to it later on; and one in which PCCs and directly elected mayors are able to ensure criminal justice services are built around the needs of victims and communities, rather than the needs of institutions.
By then we will have a new Prime Minister and effectively a new government. Following months of political paralysis and mayhem they will be looking for ways to regain political momentum and reboot their domestic policy agenda. Pushing ahead with justice devolution would be a good start.