Nine challenges for the local media as a new era of possible devolution dawns

parliament

As responses to a no vote for independence go, David Cameron’s response to not only promise more devolved powers to Scotland, but the UK as a whole was an interesting one.

As the show of force amongst a group of Northern newspapers yesterday showed, there is a significant body of support behind the idea of devolved powers – after all, there are plenty of examples of how a London-based political system has failed many regions.

If the last 24 hours are anything to go by, the next few months will involve a significant amount of bun-fighting based on self-interest between the Westminster parties, with all inside the Houses of Parliament having one eye on how this could play out in the eyes of the public at the general election next May.

I already have a nagging feeling that an issue which has exploded as a result of the Westminster bubble being caught off guard 300 miles or so from its comfort zone is already being dragged back onto the regular political playing field – one which struggles to attract the attention of even the most geeky of political watchers.

Coupled with the high state of excitement among local government leaders at the prospect of more power, there’s no doubt the next few months have the scope to be fascinating for local journalism, and also potentially life-changing.

Here are some of the key themes as I see them.

1. Who cares?

Around 85% of the Scottish electorate got out to vote this week in a referendum where everyone knew the arguments, and everyone had an opinion (which is just as well, given the number of vox pops being shared every day by the media). But that doesn’t remove the fact that voter turnout in elections held elsewhere in the UK remains painfully low.

I perhaps come at this still from spending a few months as a political reporter on The Journal covering the North East Regional Assembly debate. The Journal was perhaps the loudest advocate of devolved powers within the British media, and rightly so. The list of things Governments have got wrong in the North East is very long.

You didn’t have to try to hard to find ordinary people frustrated with the raw deal that the North East got from London, and it was the same elsewhere in the North too. That translated into a turnout of around 48% for an autumn poll, a strong showing when compared with more recent votes, but only 20% of those who turned out voted in favour.

The challenge therefore is for change to be justified to an electorate who have become increasingly disengaged with politicians at a local, regional and national level.

There is a positive dimension to this, however. The growth of social media appears to have made people more politically engaged, and audience data I see suggests engagement in political coverage which explains its relevance to readers is growing.

It’s essential that the media, and particularly the regional press, gets all over the powers being proposed and asks ‘Will this make a difference for our readers?’

2. Splitting up the issues

There are two main themes at play here, which the political parties in London are already starting to confuse: Proper devolution of powers, and balancing who votes for what in Parliament as a result. The West Lothian Question – that is, why can MPs in Scotland vote on issues which don’t impact their constituents because of the powers already devolved to the Scottish Parliament – will get a lot of attention, but in many ways it is a side issue.

The discussion and debate about devolved powers and what should be decided away from Westminster is a huge issue in itself.

3. Learning from the recent past

Both the coalition government and the previous Labour administration talked up their desire to devolve powers, but their implementation of devolution has often been a disappointment.

Labour spent millions of pounds on a regional assembly debate across the North in 2003 and 2004, but a failure to explain what real power would be handed over to the regional assembly. Vague promises were banded about around economic development, transport and aspects of health too, but in the end it felt like another tier of politicians to many people. Deputy prime minister John Prescott, the powerful – and at times, it like the only – champion of regional assemblies in Government, was ultimately let down by his cabinet colleagues as promises and pledges on devolved powers failed to materialise.

Since 2010, we’ve seen a wave of devolution ideas coming forward, including local enterprise partnerships and elected mayors. Yet when asked to go the polls and offered elected mayors, residents in most cities said no. Liverpool went a different way, and just opted for an elected mayor without a public vote. Which brings me to…

4. Power and accountability

The clamour for power from local politicians will be deafening, but is power better held locally? Rarely a week goes by when a decision by the mayor of Salford isn’t called into question, while several councils, including Manchester and Knowsley, are pretty much one-party states as a result of recent elections.

If power is to move from London to regions, the politicians within the regions need to start from a position of convincing local people that they are the right people to have that extra power. There is little sign from recent history that that will happen.

As mentioned in Liverpool, a council led by Labour leader Joe Anderson voted for the mayoral structure without a referendum being offered, with the only vote being to choose the mayor. Liverpool chose Joe Anderson. The option of saying no to such a concentration of power was denied to the people of Liverpool.

A combination of low turnouts and the transformation of local elections into snap votes on the performance of national political parties – by the parties themselves and the national media – has resulted in many Town Halls no longer being truly representative of the areas they serve.

5. How we vote

So how do you make Town Halls more representative, and therefore more accountable? A new way of voting seems  essential now, be it some sort of proportional representation or a form of alternative vote – something which ensures that one-party Town Hall states aren’t possible.

6. Power and accountability

I think the success of the Scottish referendum boiled down to two things: An emotive issue which meant something to everyone, and the obvious impact each vote could have. That sense of power is often lacking within local government, not least because local government has become so shrouded in secrecy in recent years.

With new powers has to come the ability for proper scrutiny, something it’s almost impossible to subject many councils to at the moment, thanks to the behind-closed-doors decision-making approach many have adopted. Critics of the regional press blame lack of coverage on staff cuts, but there is a lot which could be done to make it easier to cover the goings on at local town halls – if only there was the political will.

The coalition record here has been poor. Local Enterprise Partnerships can spend millions of pounds of money without being any guarantee of transparency. Police and Crime Commissioners, as we’ve seen in Rotherham, can’t actually be forced to resign. And commitments to transparency, such as releasing spending data, have been largely toothless too.

7. What would local decision-making change?

The assumption is that local decisions would be better decisions, and maybe that is the case. One recent experiment suggests that isn’t always the case. The Government recently set up Rail North, a partnership of the Department for Transport and councils in the North which is tasked with determining the future of rail franchises in the North.

So far, rail travellers have been hit with more expensive on-peak fares, the news that ancient, leaky trains will be pressed into service for longer and the threat of more cuts to rail services. What difference are the local councils really having – or being allowed to have?

8. Who will make the decisions?

There’s already talk of the new powers to English regions being dependent on adopting region-wide mayors, or perhaps the introduction of new wider local authorities. The challenge remains to prove to the public – and to the media – that more layers of government are needed.

9. What about local councils?

An interesting question for local journalists to pose is how well local decision-making is working at the moment. Why, for example, do the residents of Burnley have a local borough council and a county council making decisions, but the residents of Morpeth just have one, huge, unitary covering all of Northumberland?

Overall, the last 48 hours have been historic and have the ability to change, once and for all, how decisions are made across the UK. The next few months will determine what that means in real life. For the local media, it’s a chance to make sure that local government is forced to become more accountable, and that whatever is put on the table actually reflects what local people, rather than local politicians and their London bosses, want. 

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