A Green Vision for English Devolution
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A Green Vision for English Devolution

Whilst recognising the limitations of the current system of English devolution, should the Green Party also take the opportunity to propose a radical alternative vision for devolution?

English devolution has so far exemplified a neoliberal vision with a lick of greenwash. In my own area, the East Midlands, the Green Party has been unequivocal in its opposition to the whole shebang. It is fair to argue that, far from devolving power, English devolution has tended to reinforce centralised power. Greens should continue to challenge this and push to embed the principle of subsidiarity: localising power to the lowest appropriate level. However, is this appropriate level in some cases that of the sub-region? As well as pushing to reform the devolution process, can the Green Party take the opportunity to propose a different narrative and a radical alternative vision for devolution?

Devolution within a neoliberal narrative

English devolution is currently permeated with neoliberal values of economic growth, globalisation and competition. The process encourages regions to regard each other as competitors, both for funds and for the badge of economic success. This is a pattern that has repeated over time whenever devolution has been attempted.

Implicit in this approach (as in the overall ideology of neoliberalism) is that there will be losers as well as winners. The climate crisis appears as industrial strategy with promises of a ‘green industrial revolution’. Those who use this phrase fail to see the irony here – the industrial revolution was built on colonialism and extractivism and has led ultimately to the very real threat to life on earth. We shouldn’t need Einstein to remind us of how close to insanity we come by repeating an approach and expecting a different result. A ‘green industrial revolution’ also springs very much from the cavalier, not to say selfish, mindset evident in former PM Johnson’s mantra of ‘Cake, Have, Eat.’[1]

The current approach to devolution, by both Conservative and Labour, is about MORE – more jobs, more houses, more global contracts for big business. The East Midlands devolution deal proposal talks about ‘gems of industry’ such as Rolls-Royce and Toyota. Many of the deals are centred around freeports. As Quinn Slobodian outlines in ‘Crack-Up Capitalism’[2], this has been a fashion of the last couple of decades, just one example of the way in which ‘free’ has been redefined by neoliberals. Freedom from tax and regulation for businesses translates into exploitation for employees and economic extraction from the local community. Commentators have noted that freeports fail even to provide the extra local jobs that they promise.[3]

So what is worth salvaging in English devolution?

Matthew Hull wrote for Green House in 2022[4]on the performativity evident in mayoral behaviour to date, along with place-based rhetoric for political gain. But he concluded, as I do, that it may be better to see regionalism as fertile ground to campaign on rather than rejecting it. He cites the Welsh devolution model as offering an example of partial success, with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act 2015 providing a moral touchstone which can help to define limits to development. The bold decision to end roadbuilding in Wales has started to demonstrate the power of the Act.

The Liverpool City region mayor, Steve Rotheram, has shown more interest than most in a socially progressive approach, enlisting radical thinkers in New Municipalism to draw up England’s first land commission. Whilst there is no evidence that it has yet been acted upon, the final report, ‘Our Land’[5], co-ordinated by CLES (the national organization for local economies and curators of the community wealth building movement in the UK) at least hints at what might be possible even within the constraints of the current devolution framework.

Mark Sandford[6]and Sam Warner et al.[7]have suggested that regional mayors have the potential to act as figureheads who can bring together multiple stakeholders. Provided these stakeholders include the local community, small businesses and charities, this could expand democracy and local resilience rather than closing it down with an exclusive focus on big business and foreign investment.

Green transport plans are perhaps the best feature of current devolved regions and exhibit more joined-up thinking. However, active travel needs to be given greater priority.

What might a green devolution vision include?

A green vision for devolution could be based on principles of the Foundational Economy[8]which puts a community’s essential needs at the heart of municipal strategy. The concept of the ‘grounded city’ could also usefully be adopted with the thinking that a city is ‘grounded through its relation with a hinterland’.[9]A similar approach is taken in bioregionalism.[10]This is where government at a regional or sub-regional level could be helpful. By combining Green Party policies, we could reimagine a relationship between rural and urban areas, which has been more or less severed over recent decades. Under a green vision, food production could be relocalised using agroecological principles, serving both to mitigate climate issues and build local resilience to future shocks.[11]  For evidence that this vision can appeal to voters, it is worth taking a look at ‘Our Food Futures’[12], produced in North Lancashire in 2021. In a highly participatory process, engaging stakeholders across the food supply chain and including members of the Lancaster District People’s Jury on Climate Change, the group ended up recommending an approach that centres agroecological farming in their strategy. Such an approach was also supported in the recent polling conducted as part of the National Conversation About Food.[13] Whilst it would take time to realise such a vision, the Green Party could gain the support of the community to get started on the path towards it.

Gaining community support is critical in any case for a successful devolution deal. The Green Party could make it clear how we would engage in a much more democratic and inclusive process by which the communities in the region could collaborate in making the vision for the region a reality. This might also involve greater fiscal independence.[14] Whilst the Green Party may oppose the mayoral model, it is still worth putting forward how a green mayor would establish more democratic ways of working.

Adult skills development is one of the responsibilities that is devolved under the higher-level devolution agreements. Current administrations focus on building skills in digital and green-tech areas such as hydrogen and wind power, with a lesser focus on the manual skills needed for a green transition such as retrofitting homes and installing solar panels. A broader green vision could see this expanded to agricultural and food production skills as well as those in the care economy. In time, these could be seen as valued green jobs, just as much as those in technology sectors.

There is an opportunity in housing for sub-regional governance to bridge the gap between national government and local councils, which are estimated to have a strong influence on over 1/3 of carbon emissions.[15]Retrofit might be better planned across neighbouring council areas. Based on existing green policies, a green mayor could commit to freeing up existing unused buildings for housing and keeping new housebuilding to a minimum. Aligning land use planning, housing and transport plans would be key to this process.

Significantly, within a green vision the climate crisis would dictate limits rather than acting as a vehicle for industrial strategy – even green industrial strategy needs to confront limits. This means taking a more creative approach to how we provision for our communities, embodying values of sufficiency, sharing, resilience and thriving together in community.

In summary, whilst the insufficient democracy in the current devolution process needs to be challenged, along with demanding that it genuinely delivers on decentralisation, the principle itself offers an opportunity for greens to offer a vision of a secure future that inspires the active participation of citizens in the English regions.

[1] Boris Johnson – Speech at Leaders Summit on Climate – April 2021

[2]Slobodian cites data from UNCTAD on the expansion of special economic zones globally from 176 in 1986 to 5,400 in 2018. Quinn Slobodian (2023) Crack-Up Capitalism - Market Radicals and the Dream of a World without Democracy

[3] Freeports Gazette – Bylines Cymru

[4]Matthew Hull (2022) A Just Transition in Britain: Navigating 'actually existing regionalisms'

[5] CLES (2021) Our land: final report

[6] Mark Sandford (2019) Conceptualising ‘generative power’: Evidence from the city-regions of England

[7] Sam Warner, David Richards, Diane Coyle and Martin J. Smith (2021) English Devolution and the Covid‐19 Pandemic: Governing Dilemmas in the Shadow of the Treasury

[8] The Foundational Economy

[9] Ewald Engelen et al. (2017) Grounded city: from competitivity to the foundational economy

[10] See Molly Scott-Cato (2013) The Bioregional Economy: Land, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

[11] See Carolyn Steel (2020) Sitopia and Chris Smaje (2020) A Small Farm Future

[12] Our Food Futures: A Community Food Strategy for North Lancashire.

[13] National Conversation about Food

[14] This topic would require in-depth consideration in a longer paper.

[15] Councillor workbook – The local path to net zero | Local Government Association