Through their ambitious devolution programme, the Conservatives show a new assertiveness in relation to restructuring the local state, in contrast to the laissez-faire approach of the previous Coalition government. Although the Coalition piloted devolution, its signature policies of ‘localism’ and the ‘Big Society’ focused on non-state actors, providing rights and opportunities for communities to challenge local government and establish their own services. The Conservatives are promoting devolution as a strategy to stimulate economic growth based on greater sub-regional autonomy and increased competitiveness across and between English localities. ‘Combined authorities’ have the opportunity to champion local identities and acquire new economic development powers from Whitehall. But devolution could be a strategy to decentralise austerity, shifting responsibility to the local level for deeper cuts (56% by 2020) and inevitable service reductions. Local government confronts ‘super-austerity’, where new cuts come on top of previous ones, compounding original impacts and creating dangerous (and unevenly spread) multiplier effects. The Conservatives’ ‘smarter state’ policies, aimed at delivering ‘more for less’, amount to little more than a recycling of new public management diktats. The emerging patchwork of ‘devolution deals’ challenges the redistributive assumptions of the grant regime and could leave disadvantaged areas at particular risk of failure. ‘Metro mayors’ are intended to provide visible and accountable leadership; but roles for locally elected councillors, and prospects for community and citizen engagement, remain unclear. The public has yet to be adequately engaged in what is in danger of becoming a technocratic transfer of power.
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- Local government