After months of painstaking negotiations with Whitehall, a further devolutionary shift to London has seen the budget for the work and health programme transferred to London boroughs.
Resources amounting to up to £80m over five years will be used by councils to help the long-term unemployed and those with disabilities to access employment. A further £60m will also be available from the European Social Fund, taking the overall budget to some £140m.
Other city regions, notably Greater Manchester, have struck their own devolution deals with the government and London has had to make its own case, as must each city region, for a further transfer of power to the capital.
London mayor Sadiq Khan has signalled that his administration will lobby for substantial further devolution, including over taxation, and when mayors are elected in the Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge/Peterborough and Tees Valley city regions in May this year, it is inevitable that they, too will pursue substantial further devolved powers.
The creation of the Greater London Authority in 2000 was the start of what has turned into a longer-term process of devolution to the UK’s largest city. In parallel, Scotland and Wales have become ever more like Canadian provinces or German states. Income tax powers are in the process of significant devolution to Edinburgh and Cardiff. Although the UK remains only quasi federal it is, nevertheless, a unitary state with some devolved parts.
With a population approaching 9 million, London self-evidently has a system of government capable of handling more devolved power than at present. Its public services, run by the boroughs and the mayor, are good – especially in the light of the reductions to public expenditure since 2010.
But for Whitehall there are twin barriers to any more significant amount of devolution within England.
First, there has long been disbelief at the centre about the capacities of sub-national government. Despite the existence of dozens of reports from the National Audit Office cataloguing waste and failure within centrally-run expenditure programmes, there is a strong predisposition to believe that devolution risks worsening provision. In fairness to central government, this view is often shared by public service professionals.
Second, any substantive devolution of, say, the NHS would reduce the size of Whitehall’s empire and ministers and civil servants are unenthusiastic about losing power.
The change announced in relation to the work and health programme will provide specialised support for those who have been unemployed for over two years and, on a voluntary basis, to those with health conditions or disabilities. The government has made clear that this support will be commissioned from private providers. In the traditions of what might be called cautious devolution in England, the government will work with city regions to “co-design” this new welfare-to-work initiative.
Different sub-national areas within England are evolving different deals with ministers on a step-by-step basis. Greater Manchester has blazed a trail on devolving substantive health powers. The BBC reported recently that London hospitals may be allowed to sell off assets and then re-use the cash to support house-building in the city. The work and health programme has origins within welfare policy but contributes to a broadly similar, devolutionary, goal.
As Theresa May’s government starts the complex process of renegotiating the UK’s relationship with the rest of the world, Whitehall seems likely to be distracted from domestic policy for several, possibly many, years.
Devolution to city and county-regions offers her government an opportunity to concentrate its efforts on, among others, the Donalds Trump and Tusk. London and other cities could, increasingly, look after themselves.
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