My colleague David Lee has written already about Conservative Party conference #CPC16 in Birmingham and what we learned about developing rural policy in the post Brexit world.
Scanning the huge number of fringe events taking place at conference gives a big clue about what the key public policies issues are challenging politicians in the governing party and crying out for answers.
So what were the recurring themes amongst the fringe in Birmingham? No surprise Brexit was definitely number one. Northern Powerhouse figured highly, while skills & education, housing and broadband were popular as well. But a word that kept popping up and has particular resonance with those of us based in Scotland was devolution.
The form of devolution now being debated is fundamentally different from that which arrived with Tony Blair’s election as PM in 1997 and brought Parliaments or National Assemblies to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is about city regions within England and the opportunity it offers to radically transform governance in the U.K.
So we have the Midlands Engine, the devolution dividend, Magnetic North, and Metro Mayors all competing to deliver a ‘skills revolution’ and build prosperity in a post-Brexit Britain that ceases to be so dominated by an overheated economy in London and the South East.
What does all this mean for Scotland? So far devolution has come to Edinburgh and power has been sucked up from the regions to the centre. Further education colleges, previously run by locally autonomous boards of management, now have chairs appointed by the Cabinet Secretary in Edinburgh. Local policing and fire boards have gone the same way. However, while there has been a broad-based reaction against Scottish Parliament- promoted centralisation, the current incoherent structure of Scottish local government makes it harder to argue for more powers being exercised in town halls rather than St Andrews House.
There is a strong lobby among some politicians and commentators for a return to pre-1970s local government with small towns – in some cases Royal Burghs – having their own elected representatives. But isn’t it time we looked towards the devolution revolution sweeping England and giver serious consideration to Scottish ‘Metro-mayors’ representing the large urban areas of Scotland?
Glasgow is one city desperately needing a strong local voice as decades of Labour political hegemony looks to be coming to an end. Similarly as Aberdeen considers a future no longer reliant on oil, then strong political leadership arguing the case for an area of Scotland traditionally missing out on government funding seems self-evident. As Edinburgh expands, pressure on land for housing intensifies and a degree of integration with the Lothians and south Fife in a new city region or ‘Metro Edinburgh’ will bring much needed political scrutiny to the process of deciding where to build the homes a growing population needs. Dundee, Perth and Inverness are candidates as well once the initial Mayors are in place.
Will it happen? Well, the structure of local government in Scotland is almost the last area of public policy where a pre-devolution set up remains unaltered. Watch this space…