Devolution dies in darkness
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest UK devolution news every morning.
This article is an on-site version of our Inside Politics newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday
Good morning. Stephen here. One of the many reasons I was so excited to join the FT and start a newsletter was the opportunity to promote the work of our (I still get a wonderful thrill about writing the word “our”) incredibly talented reporters and columnists. One of them, Jennifer Williams, has kindly written today’s note, about devolution and scrutiny.
In exciting news, Inside Politics has been shortlisted for an award. Given that so many ideas for this newsletter come from the emails written by you, I owe all of you (and Georgina) a debt of thanks, although should we win, I intend to keep the award for myself.
Anyway, here’s Jen.
A new dawn for devolution?
When the latest wave of English devolution was announced for the West Midlands and Greater Manchester in the March Budget, it came with a twist. In return for more powers, the two respective mayoral Andys — Street and Burnham — must now come under scrutiny from MPs, via brand new quarterly select committees.
Decentralisers were understandably disquieted. The whole point of English devolution is that mayors are directly accountable to their respective electorates, rather than having to bow and scrape to Westminster.
As someone who has spent probably more time than is healthy looking at this stuff up close, though, I felt slightly conflicted. There is a legitimate question about how much attention is currently paid to the record of politicians in the brave new devolved landscape beyond London. This is a new and immature system, one which does not always bask in the sunlight of scrutiny.
Since 2014, English devolution has gradually evolved — by this time next year 15mn people outside London will be living under a mayor, most of them in northern England. Throughout that process, we have witnessed several countervailing trends. The institutional knowledge of existing local government has been steadily hollowing out due to budget reductions. The standards regime that used to, prior to 2010, sanction councillors for conduct breaches has been diminished, at the same time as local politics has often become increasingly toxic. And the local government audit sector is pretty universally deemed to be unfit for purpose.
All these are risks to the quality of governance and decision making. There have been a number of examples in the past couple of years — from Nottingham to Northumberland to Liverpool — where crises were able to languish in the dark for longer than should have been possible.
At the exact same time, economic headwinds have been buffeting local media, which, outside of the capital, is usually the main source of journalistic scrutiny for mayors and councils.
As an ex-regional hack I’m not going to tediously opine that local journalism is dead: fantastic reporting exists and it’s all too easy for the national press — which has plenty of its own issues — to patronisingly write it off. Nevertheless, the digital age has been undeniably disruptive in the extreme to local news, and especially to those titles lacking the more robust economics of big cities.
Business strategies have lurched around. Mass lay-offs have been followed by spurts of expansion, followed by more mass lay-offs. Reach, the UK’s biggest commercial news publisher, is currently carrying out its second round of redundancies this financial year. Of the 192 journalist roles it intends to axe nationally, about 150 are notably from its regional operations outside London.
The BBC, meanwhile, is embarking on its own retrenchment, cutting 48 jobs and merging output across 39 local radio station areas. It’s worth remembering the quality of journalism that exists in BBC local radio, as Liz Truss discovered when she encountered it in September. From Teesside to Norfolk, it was a breakfast round bloodbath.
One leader of a large northern local authority complained to me a few weeks ago that soon they will have nobody asking them genuinely challenging questions on a regular basis. That particular politician mourned the opportunity to answer questions. Many others would be only too glad not to have to.
In such vacuums thrive human error, incompetence and, in the worst scenarios, corruption. A retired local newspaper reporter thinking along the same lines emailed me last week, quoting from a Guardian obituary of World In Action journalist Ray Fitzwalter:
In the late 1960s, as a young reporter on the Bradford Telegraph & Argus, he was the first to take an interest in the activities of an obscure architect named John Poulson, triggering what became a national scandal that ended the political career of the former Tory chancellor and home secretary Reginald Maulding.
Poulson, for those unacquainted with his black mark on English political history, was the Yorkshire architect eventually jailed in the 1970s for bribing public figures — a “stark reminder”, as the retired hack observed, of the importance of local journalism.
There are reasons to be hopeful, though. It will take time to build a devolved ecosystem beyond London — and there are signs it is happening. In Manchester, the city’s revival, the growing maturity of the mayoralty as an institution and perhaps a little of Andy Burnham’s showmanship is attracting graduates who might have otherwise headed off to Whitehall. Other mayoral systems are on the same path too, attracting experienced people intent on making these new models work.
On the media side, it’s not as though there is no audience out there for political writing outside of London. The reaction to our story last week about the mayor of Middlesbrough’s business interests even took me by surprise, as a signed-up enthusiast for this sort of thing. Neither am I discounting the excellent work of the Local Democracy Reporting Service, the BBC-funded wire set up to fill the gaps in political reporting on the ground.
But the economics of local news is in an unhappy place. Rishi Sunak is reportedly considering legislation, modelled on Australian law, that would force big social media platforms to pay for news content. Given the difficulties in monetising online local journalism, such models may need serious consideration if we are to successfully continue down the road of English devolution.
In the meantime, centralising devolved scrutiny doesn’t make much rational sense, but the mayoral system does need sunlight.
None of this is an argument against decentralisation. It is the exact opposite. If you believe in your ability to do things better than Westminster and Whitehall, then you are presumably comfortable defending your decisions more than once every four years at the ballot box. A lot of damage can be done in four years.
They may know their places better, but as people, mayors are no more intrinsically infallible than ministers.
Now try this
It’s hardly a rarefied offering, but it’s a Friday and my capacity for challenging cultural experiences is currently a little thin. So if you fancy a smart, silly, gloriously gory bit of escapism, I can recommend: Scream 6 (yes, 6).
Fans of the original franchise will note that Neve Campbell is missing from the cast, but to be honest, we didn’t think it really suffered as a result. Fortunately Courtney Cox is back as Gale Weathers — without whom Scream really wouldn’t be Scream — so for nostalgic elder millennials like me, there’s still just enough of 1996 in there to feel at home.
(It’s Stephen again.) I had a marvellous evening last night at the Royal Festival Hall, listening to the Philharmonia Orchestra play one of my favourite pieces of music: Jean Sibelius’s fifth symphony. In addition, they played a Robert Schumann piece I hadn’t heard before, which was a delight. You can listen to the Philharmonia’s new record label on Apple Music or their back catalogue on Spotify.
One additional pleasure of my evening was the knowledge that I could savour every note, safe in the knowledge that Jen would be doing the difficult work of writing today’s note. I’ll be back again on Monday.
However you spend it, have a wonderful weekend.
Top stories today
UK joins Asia-Pacific trade bloc | The UK has unveiled an agreement to join an 11-member Asia-Pacific trade bloc. While Rishi Sunak claimed it proved his government was seizing “post-Brexit freedoms”, the economic gains for Britain are minimal, according to the government’s own projections.
Ferrier tale ending | Scotland’s first minister Humza Yousaf is braced for his first electoral challenge after a UK parliamentary committee recommended a 30-day suspension for Margaret Ferrier, an ex-Scottish National party MP who broke rules at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘Deeply troubling bullying and harassment’ | England’s fire and rescue services have been told to “get a grip” of staff misconduct following a damning report into the sector uncovered claims of bullying, harassment and discrimination in all 44 regional organisations.
Splitting up | A major review of a 50-year-old law governing the split of financial assets in divorce is imminent.
Home Office slammed over ‘sluggish’ fraud response | The UK risks becoming a “haven for fraudsters”, MPs have warned as they criticised the government’s record on tackling the nation’s dominant form of crime.