People, not economics, should be the focus of devolution efforts, if we’re to shift the needle on our region’s big health and social challenges, argues Henry Kippin.
We may yet see devolution in the north east spearheaded by a directly elected regional mayor. This would be welcome. It has been a painful thing watching excitement about the Northern Powerhouse fizzle out just north of York, and fearing that the future of the health service is more likely to be shaped in Newquay than Newcastle.
But the possibility of devolved powers does, of course, bring up what football managers sometimes call a “nice problem to have”. When the smoke-filled rooms of diplomatic negotiation clear, what is it that the north east actually wants to do differently? And more importantly, what difference will it make to its population?
Most of the devolution debate has focused on the economic case: the potential of growing metro economies through creating the right infrastructure and the incentives for business. Better transport infrastructure, closer links between skills and job opportunities, encouraging investment in high value sectors like manufacturing and digital.
But some regions are beginning to think more creatively about their public services. Manchester and Cornwall have made a major pitch for local ownership of the health and social care system. The West Midlands has commissioned a re-think of its mental health services. South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire are majoring on drawing together a better skills deal for both jobseekers and employers.
All of which begs the question: what should the north east be prioritising? As one local councillor in Sunderland told me: “Our communities aren’t stupid. We need to give them different possibilities.”
Creative thinking about what these possibilities is the single biggest policy challenge for this generation of local leaders. It requires humility, intelligence, and a degree of collaboration from Northumberland down to Durham that challenges old rivalries and established practices. There is no reason to think this is not possible; but it will take a shift in culture and identity based on a shared narrative about the future.
The Sunderland councillor’s plea about communities is well placed. But putting human beings at the centre of this stuff is harder than you would think. Making policy lifts change into the abstract, and views risk through the lens of organisations rather than people. Partly as a result, good intention and competence in delivery has not shifted the needle against some of the country’s most stubborn social outcomes – not least, here in the north east.
My own plea is this. If – as the saying goes – the north east’s biggest asset is its people, then let’s put them at the heart of devolution plans. Bring the forgotten art of public service reform to the foreground and focus on building the links between economic growth and more profound social change in the region. Do you think seven leaders can agree on that? I don’t see why not.
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