Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Pushing power down

Putting regions, cities and businesses in the driving seat

In the years before the 2010 election the Conservatives claimed to be the party of decentralisation – the party that said it recognised that, to quote Nye Bevan, ‘the purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away’. David Cameron waxed lyrical about the ‘big society’. He even issued a manifesto grandly titled: ‘An invitation to join the government of Britain’.

Four years on, that looks like so much posturing. The government’s school reforms have concentrated control in the Department for Education, while its work programme is a dysfunctional product of Whitehall silo thinking and the burden of deficit reduction has fallen heavily on local government.

Some of the most notable examples are found in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. For example, by axing government regional offices, the coalition cut the proportion of BIS staff based outside London from 16 per cent to just six per cent. It has largely ignored Lord Heseltine’s arguments for a radical decentralisation of business and growth support. Of the £49bn single pot combining funding streams that he proposed in his ‘No stone unturned’ report, the government has committed to devolving just £2bn of annual spending.

Such policies are in defiance of evidence from countries where regions and cities have more autonomy from the centre than their British equivalents. This week, I am visiting the United States to see, among other things, how American mayors and governors use their devolved powers to drive innovation and prosperity. A major study completed in 2012 found that ‘countries with greater degrees of decentralisation are associated with stronger economic performance.’ There are lessons here for us Brits, the United Kingdom being one of the most centralised countries in the advanced world.

Consider the record of Rahm Emanuel. As mayor of Chicago, he has pinpointed his city’s strengths as a rival high-tech hub to those on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. He has set up a now world-renowned incubator for startups, has toured America’s top universities to lure engineers and IT experts to his city and he has made Chicago the first urban school district in the United States to make computer science part of the core curriculum.

Ed Lee, Emanuel’s counterpart in San Francisco, declares his city the ‘innovation capital of the world’ and has geared his business development policies accordingly – for example, mapping skills shortages with employers and feeding these insights into schemes to adapt the workforce to the fast-changing needs of the city’s economy.

Across the country in Maryland, Martin O’Malley is showing similar creativity and drive as governor. He has led the way in using open data policies to make public services more responsive to the needs of their users.

Another American trend that we should study closely is the way that mayors and governors collaborate – often across geographic and political boundaries, and independently of the federal government – to devise new solutions to common problems. Last June, for example, the United States Conference Of Mayors approved a resolution – co-sponsored by Emanuel and Lee, among others – to remove regulations holding back the ‘sharing economy’: bike-and-car-sharing schemes, peer-to-peer service industries, cooperatives and the like.

These and many other such examples highlight the benefits of pushing down power to regions, cities and businesses that are, ultimately, the best judges of their own needs. That is why Ed Miliband recently
 announced that Labour will go much further than the Tory-led government by devolving at least double the amount that minsters are planning – the equivalent of at least £20bn over five years.

It is also why I am making devolution a central part of Agenda 2030, our plan to tackle the cost-of-living crisis through better-balanced, sustainable growth and a higher-skill, higher-wage economy.


Chuka Umunna MP is shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills


Photo: Matt Becker

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Chuka Umunna MP

is shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills


  • But in Labour’s quest for greater devolution – which I wholeheartedly support – we need to avoid replacing power in the hands of a load of central quangos to a load of regional & local quangos. Bevan was referring to giving power away to people, not just another set of politicians… Power corrupts and all that….

  • Nice, well thought out article. I like Chuka. But what is needed is a politically neutral Head of Business Initiatives. A theme which Mr Alan Sugar advised the then PM, Gordon Brown in [?] 2009- or would being politically neutral on major plans for the future that involve all the people in the whole United Kingdom be asking too much? Same could be argued for an Education Head to be politically neutral.
    (1) Skills-learning [IT codes taught in pre-primary along with Noddy reading] and (2) DWP Rules and Regulations can’t be changed every 5 years with every new Minister. Or at the whim of a Whitehall-silo [Silo? are you hiding a secret?] PUS. These two Depts [Education & Business] should not be tinkered with willie-nillie, by any and all newly-found incumbents and certainly not without the full say of the electorate who voted them in – its called Democracy – capital “D”. Multi-Party support for any change in the Rule-Books! and the rules to be chipped in stone! as they are in the American Bill of Rights and its [few] Amendments. UK Politicians have an important admin’ and legal function to serve, their role is to serve the People as the People come first. Make no mistake about that. Making plans for the whole Nation up to and beyond 2030 should be open to all for comment on a Referendum basis. PS: What is the 2030 Agenda? Will I be around in 2030 to bother? should I bother finding out? or wait till 2030AD? Just asking, as the “2030 Agenda’s” agenda hasn’t trickled down to the us in the shires yet.

  • Oh that Jim O’Neill’s 2030 Agenda -similar to Kenya’s- and that Goldman Sachs employee and his BRIC-a-brac economic theories and his uber think-tank philosophies. What a whizz-wizard. [When is a penny not a penny? … when its a BIT ‘o COIN]. Fascinating stuff! Mesmerizing in the extreme.
    Does it find me and millions of others a decent job before 2030AD?

    Good Luck! and God help us all.

  • “We, the People, …( )…” [fill in the blank beginning with : Vote for Politicians because…]

  • Idealistic thoughts can be quite visionary and inspiring: Bevan was a visionary but even he couldn’t take a horse to water and make it drink – if the People in the shires don’t want to assist ALL in the shire’s community then that’s their choice. Amish, Buddhists and Trappist Monks live exemplary lives, free of sin and guilt. Cutting themselves off from the rest of the world has its downside as people suffer by neglect – death by starving or dehydration in the 21st century? We allow it to happen by allowing the greed of bankers to go on as though nothing happened a few years’ ago.

    Knok-Knok, anyone out there? LABOUR has an election to win next year – not in 2030.

    [And sabre-rattling in Crimea may negate and make academic a 15 month policy, let alone Banker’s 15 Year Endowment policies with %]

  • There needs to be a full review of all sub-national governance machinery in England as well as a review of the governance of England as a whole. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have national economic development plans for instance, why not England? England needs it own institutions and shouldn’t been seen as an adjunct of UK wide governance and policy. Local and regional governance is in a chaotic state in England outside of London, which is the only joined up example of regional/city-regional governance in England.

    Of course Labour won’t do this but promise more devolution – to what and whom?

  • Only politicians and businessmen get a look in -what about the workers ad Trades Unions? UNITE showed sense re the Coop imbroglio…how about another look at the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy (CMD 6706, 1976)? Workers have more riding on industrial, economic and financial policy than does the local or regional aspects of the political class, who are always ‘taking full responsibility’ in a Pontius Pilate fashion when the ‘winners’ they have picked turn out to be lame ducks.

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