A gruelling day has begun for Michael Gove. It began with a test of his loyalty to Boris Johnson, when he was asked by Kay Burley on Sky News if he thought the PM should apologise for his comments about Keir Starmer and Jimmy Savile. Savile’s victims, among others, think he should; Gove thinks he shouldn’t. he thinks it’s a ‘uniquely sensitive issue’, which, in Gove’s world appears to mean that it is well suited to being yelled across the House of Commons.
An unfortunate distraction on a day when the main event is one that should have enormous impact in communities such as those in the North East, that have experienced years of population decline and lack of investment.
It isn’t. And if you’re on Teesside, one vital reason why it isn’t is glaringly obvious.
But first, the plan
- Increase employment, pay and productivity across the UK. Each UK region is to have a ‘globally competitive city’.
- Public transport across the UK is to be close to the standard of London’s.
- There is to be a significant reduction in rates of illiteracy and innumeracy across the UK.
- There is to be a significant increase in the number of people completing higher level skills training.
- There is to be a narrowing of discrepancies across the regions in healthy life expectancy.
- There is to be an improvement in perceived wellbeing across the UK.
- There is to a rise in ‘pride in place’ in all areas of the UK.
- There is to be an increase in first-time house buyers across the UK and a decrease by 50% in low quality rental accommodation.
- There is to be a fall in crime, especially violent crime.
- There is to be a devolution deal for every area that wants one.
The criticism of the plan has come in thick and fast – this is just a rehash of old plans, there’s no new money, it will benefit richer areas much than poorer ones. Read all about that in every national newspaper today.
What those news reports are unlikely to comment on is the fact that, as the report states, this initiative will fail if is applied by central government. This plan represents ‘the biggest shift in power from Whitehall to local leaders in modern times’. And who are the ‘local leaders’? For Gove these are, ideally, the metro mayors of devolved authorities. And what could be wrong with that?
Answer with another question: how does the apparatus of devolution deal with a mayor who goes rogue? The plain fact is that there is no mechanism in place for that to happen.
When a mayor goes rogue
When a mayor goes rogue, sets up organisations like the Tees Valley Trust Fund that are beyond scrutiny, and puts public money into them, no one is suitably placed to question the wisdom of that. When a metro mayor goes rogue and brings an airport into public ownership, and in reality the only thing that the public owns is its debts, the media will not question it.
And elsewhere, who scrutinises the mayor? Audit and Risk Committees appointed by the mayor. And if the audit committees ask for information that the mayor doesn’t wish them to have, he can simply refuse to hand it over.
When there is evidence of small-town grift, and donors to the mayor are favoured with contracts, does the local press report it? No. They’re terrified of it.
When a mayor ceases to disclose the names of his donors to the Electoral Commission, no one questions it.
Not fit for purpose
The devolution on which levelling up should depend is not fit for purpose, having been set up in such a way as to deter scrutiny, rather than encourage it.
In setting out his agenda for levelling up, Gove may be well intentioned, but the whole project is built on sand.
And the national press? It is based in London, and its commentators have no experience of English devolution. So the ultimate reason for the forthcoming demise of this project is invisible to them.