I was in Scotland last week. Media interest in Scotland’s independence referendum was still rife, with the likely date for the vote revealed to be in about two and a half years time.
The debates for and against reminded me of Birmingham and the opportunity we have to vote for an elected mayor – but we have only two months left before the polls open.
In Scotland, there seem to be two camps: those “for” being convinced that the value of oil to be released around Scotland’s shores will leave the country akin to a Celtic Saudi Arabia. The sooner Scotland frees itself from propping-up a bankrupt UK, the better.
Those “against” are much less convinced about the balance sheet argument and fear an independent Scotland would lose more than it would gain.
For example, how would an independent Scotland have found the resources to bail out the Royal Bank of Scotland (the Governor of the Bank of England had to write a cheque in excess of £32 billion)?
You get another perspective on Scottish independence when you climb Arthur’s Seat, the rocky outcrop about a mile from Edinburgh Castle. Nestling in the shadow of Holyrood Palace lies the splendidly quirky building that is home to the Scottish Parliament.
All angles and cut-aways, it makes an impressive sight.
Famous for going massively over budget in its construction, it is a reminder that devolution can come at a price. Not just the hundreds of millions of pounds that the parliament cost to build but also the on- going running costs of Members of the Scottish Parliament and the new civil service to serve them.
When the Scots vote for full independence in 2014, the vote will be as much a commentary on what the people think Scottish devolution has achieved so far as it will be a view on the future.
In Birmingham, we now have our opportunity to take more control ourselves, without having to add the scale of costs incurred in Scotland by the creation of another layer of governance.
The Government is already negotiating “city deals” with England’s largest city regions. The Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership is said to be in the thick of discussions with Cities Minister Greg Clarke and there are similar negotiations going on in a number of cities.
The Minister is proving no soft touch and when I had a few minutes with him at the recent Birmingham reception in Westminster, he confirmed he had asked Greater Manchester to work harder at describing how the return on Government money will be greater if spending decisions are devolved.
It remains to be seen how successful Government will be in joining-up departments to deliver on final city deals. I was amongst a number of stakeholders invited to a briefing given recently by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA). The SFA (which holds the purse strings for private and public sector college provision) described in great detail how college providers must deliver courses that local industry wants and that if providers don’t respond, then the SFA will intervene (code for hold back funding from offenders).
The big message being that there is nothing stopping local businesses and colleges agreeing what they want to do, in terms of skills provision.
The call to action being the need to create effective partnerships between business and colleges (or in reality, to build on the already good work being undertaken by the best of our colleges. My example would be the Birmingham Metropolitan College).
However, what was said a number of times was “but you are not getting your hands on the cheque book”.
In other words, spending decisions will remain with the nationally-based SFA. The SFA defence is two-fold:
* The behavioural requirements being placed upon colleges’ means local areas can achieve everything they want without needing to have the power to write cheques to providers. Colleges have so many issues to balance that there are advantages to keeping cheque-writing under central control.
* My impression of the city-deal discussions is that getting control of the cheque books is seen to matter rather a lot. After generations of having 85 per cent of the public money in Birmingham pre-spent for us by national agencies, the concept of a Birmingham budget has much appeal. A neat half-way house for Whitehall-based departments is to do what the SFA is proposing.
Set up rules that make adherence to local agendas non-negotiable whilst keeping budgets under central control. However, as compelling as the SFA example is, there is a still a whiff of “nanny knows best” behind the unwillingness to cede full control to local areas. Patronising, almost?
As seductive as is the prospect of local control over all money spent in Birmingham, we should pause and also consider what is in the national and wider interest?
What services and spending truly can be devolved with interest and what are deserving of wider decision-making frameworks?
The delivery of social services to children and adults, for example, can properly be decided best by those most close to the consumption of these services.
Equally, we don’t need Eric Pickles to tell towns and cities how often to empty our bins. Transport, on the other hand, has aspects which need a UK strategic perspective.
Most obviously for air, motorways, ports and national railways. Devolving, for example, spending on railways to cities and towns with no mechanism for ensuring the resultant decisions make sense for UK plc would make no sense.
HS2 would never have happened if decisions had depended upon multiple local areas. On the other hand, having local control of the cheque book that pays for delivering local rail and road services should result in better decisions being made.
There is a rising and welcome determination that powers should be devolved from Whitehall and Birmingham is right to be positioning itself as the English city with whom Whitehall will find it easiest to do business.
The trick will be getting the balance right between decisions best made by local areas and those made on a greater scale.
To be avoided is a competitive race to the bottom, whereby English cities see competition between themselves and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as the end game. The real competitors for Birmingham lie in China, India, the Americas and now parts of Africa which is enjoying some of the fastest growth rates in the world.
Government will devolve more powers more quickly to cities that demonstrate strong and engaged leadership. In the view of Birmingham Chamber’s members, this leadership can now be demonstrated by granting more powers to a city led by a directly-elected mayor.
Unlike independence for Scotland which would be a bet on the ability of Scotland to prosper on its own, an elected mayor will strengthen Birmingham as the leading city outside of London but still within the UK. No new building or raft of civil servants will be required.
This is about making better use of what Birmingham has already. The Government is watching Birmingham closely. A vote for mayor will be a vote for Birmingham and will accelerate the city forward.
* Jerry Blackett is chief executive of the Birmingham Chamber Group