I was in Scotland last week. Media interest in Scotland’s independence referendum was still rife, with the likely date for the vote revealed to be in about two and a half years time.
The debates for and against reminded me of Birmingham and the opportunity we have to vote for an elected mayor – but we have only two months left before the polls open.
In Scotland, there seem to be two camps: those “for” being convinced that the value of oil to be released around Scotland’s shores will leave the country akin to a Celtic Saudi Arabia. The sooner Scotland frees itself from propping-up a bankrupt UK, the better.
Those “against” are much less convinced about the balance sheet argument and fear an independent Scotland would lose more than it would gain.
For example, how would an independent Scotland have found the resources to bail out the Royal Bank of Scotland (the Governor of the Bank of England had to write a cheque in excess of £32 billion)?
You get another perspective on Scottish independence when you climb Arthur’s Seat, the rocky outcrop about a mile from Edinburgh Castle. Nestling in the shadow of Holyrood Palace lies the splendidly quirky building that is home to the Scottish Parliament.
All angles and cut-aways, it makes an impressive sight.
Famous for going massively over budget in its construction, it is a reminder that devolution can come at a price. Not just the hundreds of millions of pounds that the parliament cost to build but also the on- going running costs of Members of the Scottish Parliament and the new civil service to serve them.
When the Scots vote for full independence in 2014, the vote will be as much a commentary on what the people think Scottish devolution has achieved so far as it will be a view on the future.
In Birmingham, we now have our opportunity to take more control ourselves, without having to add the scale of costs incurred in Scotland by the creation of another layer of governance.
The Government is already negotiating “city deals” with England’s largest city regions. The Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership is said to be in the thick of discussions with Cities Minister Greg Clarke and there are similar negotiations going on in a number of cities.
The Minister is proving no soft touch and when I had a few minutes with him at the recent Birmingham reception in Westminster, he confirmed he had asked Greater Manchester to work harder at describing how the return on Government money will be greater if spending decisions are devolved.
It remains to be seen how successful Government will be in joining-up departments to deliver on final city deals. I was amongst a number of stakeholders invited to a briefing given recently by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA). The SFA (which holds the purse strings for private and public sector college provision) described in great detail how college providers must deliver courses that local industry wants and that if providers don’t respond, then the SFA will intervene (code for hold back funding from offenders).
The big message being that there is nothing stopping local businesses and colleges agreeing what they want to do, in terms of skills provision.
The call to action being the need to create effective partnerships between business and colleges (or in reality, to build on the already good work being undertaken by the best of our colleges. My example would be the Birmingham Metropolitan College).
However, what was said a number of times was “but you are not getting your hands on the cheque book”.
In other words, spending decisions will remain with the nationally-based SFA. The SFA defence is two-fold:
* The behavioural requirements being placed upon colleges’ means local areas can achieve everything they want without needing to have the power to write cheques to providers. Colleges have so many issues to balance that there are advantages to keeping cheque-writing under central control.