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Inside Whitehall: For devolution to work, we need talent outside London

A century ago, civic leaders in cities and towns outside London had a power, influence and prestige comparable to the Government in Westminster

“Unless I can secure for the nation results similar to those which have followed the adoption of my policy in Birmingham… it will have been a sorry exchange to give up the town council for the cabinet.”

So wrote Joseph Chamberlain 130 years ago. And at that time it would neither have seemed a strange or remarkable thing to say. Then, civic leaders in cities and towns outside London had a power, influence and prestige comparable to the Government in Westminster.

But then the First World War intervened and the need to mobilise and control the war effort from the centre changed the balance of power between the centre and the regions of Britain to a degree that has never been restored to this day. All that is left are the grandiose but fading council buildings in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and countless other towns and cities.

Now though, localism is back in vogue. On Monday night Ed Miliband made clear that decentralisation of power was the central plank of his plan for a future Labour Government.

“By hoarding power and decision-making at the centre, we end up with duplication and waste in public services,” he said. “It is right to devolve power down not just to the user but to the local level.”

David Cameron has said much the same. “We believe that our agenda of localism is one of the most exciting things we are doing in government,” he said in a speech to the Local Government Association.

But despite the rhetoric, this new localism is just the latest in a long line of often failed attempts to re-balance political power in Britain. While the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments and creation of a London mayor have arguably been high points, there have been many failures.

Regional assemblies were still-born, elected mayors for other big cities never really got off the ground while elected police and crime commissioners might most charitably be described as ‘work in progress’.

In an interesting paper published this week the Institute for Government has examined the reasons behind this. It suggests that for devolution to work, at least three main groups must either support or acquiesce to reforms: national politicians; local politicians; and the public.

But these groups often have different priorities, values and interests. For example, directly elected mayors were largely stymied by a coalition of local councillors, whose own powers would be denuded by mayors, and by the public who thought the move amounted to yet another layer of bureaucracy.

In theory it should be a good idea to devolve power down as close as possible to those affected by it as both Cameron and Miliband propose. But the real problem in Britain is one that they are reluctant to face – after years of neglect, the calibre of our locally elected officials is just not good enough, yet the only way to improve that is to give them a meaningful role.

But while the logical progression for an aspiring and talented politician remains London, then what will be left behind are the place men, the lazy and the incompetent. They are the last people to whom you want to devolve power.

There is a pressing need for a formalised national debate outside party politics about the way in which this country is governed and at what level. Ideally it should result in an entirely new system of local Government fit for the 21st century.

The aim should be simple: the next Joseph Chamberlain should choose to stay in Birmingham.