Who’s got the devolution blues?

MP for Peterborough Fiona Onasanya
MP for Peterborough Fiona Onasanya
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This newspaper has reported the expensive payroll that the new mayor for Peterborough and Cambridgeshire has accrued since taking office.

A number of people have asked me about this: why does it cost so much? Do we really need an additional layer of government at all?

Devolution, when done correctly, can have benefits: for example, it is surely right that our city and indeed local government has the ability to manage its affairs and decide how best to make required improvements.

It’s a cliché but nevertheless true: democracy works best when it is as close as possible to the people it seeks to govern. When there is a crisis, it’s also beneficial to have robust representation to lead local efforts.

However, we need to be cautious about this; devolution can be expensive, as we have discovered.

It can also mean that responsibility is diluted, even shirked.

Not long after I arrived at Parliament, Elizabeth Truss was taking questions at the despatch box. An MP from Wales asked her about the pay cap for public sector workers in her country and wanted Truss’ view on the matter.

Truss’ reply was terse: “The hon. Lady will be aware that that is a devolved issue and a decision for the Welsh Government.” And that was that: although Westminster should notionally be responsible for the wellbeing of all of Britain, because of the devolved assembly, Truss was able to shake off the question in a few seconds. If Truss was of a mind to improve matters for public sector workers, she could have said that it would be taken up with the Welsh Government; however, the devolved assembly’s existence provided a rhetorical escape route.

There is another issue: there are many who shared the sentiments of “Brenda from Bristol” during this year’s General Election. When told it was happening, she expressed disbelief and outrage that “another one” was in progress.

The lesson from this is simple: most people have a certain tolerance for politics. The additional politics that is implied by more government in devolved form can breach that limit.

After that barrier is broken, scrutiny, so essential for government to be held accountable, may falter as it all ends in tiers.

Devolved government in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire could mean that we get more affordable and reliable bus services and we finally have the university in Peterborough that we so urgently need.

Indeed, it could mean that our representative clout is enhanced by being part of a larger entity.

Alternatively, however, it could mean that when the standard of living falters in our area, central government will have someone else to blame or more services are quietly privatised: moreover, it could also mean Peterborough’s voice will be diluted.

Devolution can be made to work, but there is no proverbial “silver bullet”. Is it necessary?

Possibly: but only if it actually takes up responsibility rather than is a place for it to be dumped.