Devolution, taxis and brown ale

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It’s the same the world over. If you want to understand the mood of a city just ask a taxi driver.

Well, the organisers of our devolution update did just that and found their Newcastle cabbie knew all about it, but he sagely warned that “in ten years time it will all go back round again and powers will re-centralised”.

The idea of a cosmic wheel that just keeps spinning round certainly isn’t the communications challenge I was expecting but actually it does have some basis in reality.

Since I moved back to the North East in 2004 it’s gone from abortive regional assembly to One North East to ‘regional’ becoming a dirty word in government and back again.

The idea of devolution has probably been overshadowed by the EU referendum debate and although people are aware (particularly around the Northern Powerhouse plans) I wonder if any of us know enough about the benefits and drawbacks of what’s currently being proposed.

This video from Manchester where plans are far more advanced than the North East perhaps suggest that we take some of this for granted.

So last week the LGA and CIPR Public services organised a brilliant briefing for comms people on how the devolution process was shaping up and what it could mean for the future of our region.

The day was widely tweeted about so I won’t break any confidences, but here were my key thoughts from the session.

  1. The deal on the table for the North East provides local responsibility for public services, but also local risk so there would be huge communications implications for all the public sector organisations around the North East. This means huge change but also huge opportunity.
  1. There was a lot of talk about much greater partnership and a place-based approach to communications, where all agencies including health and voluntary organisations work together on key local issues. Personally, I think this will be very difficult to achieve (sadly). I vaguely remember something similar being sold back in 2008 – total place anybody? – and this definitely takes us back to the taxi driver analogy.
  1. The LGA has produced some great resources to help teams across the country understand and engage in the devolution debate. The 60 second video guide they’ve developed is particularly useful.
  1. There’s a feeling that the complex and pretty dry debates around governance and policy so far have actually crowded out the real stories that people will be interested in. What will actually motivate people to be interested is understanding how it can improve their own lives through better transport, more housing or greater opportunity.
  1. The problem with that – in comms terms – is that it’s yet more jam tomorrow politics. In all honesty we don’t even know what flavour jam it will be yet or when the delivery will arrive. To mix the culinary metaphors even further Darren Caveney warned that selling the current concept was like branding a chocolate bar without knowing the taste, colour or ingredients.
  1. Digital will sit at the heart of a successful devolution debate and it’s vital that as comms professionals we know the story, can work in partnership, map the digital landscape and involve citizens from the start. This all needs to be done in a human and engaging way that avoids the ‘dry as sticks’ Whitehall debate.
  1. It’s important not to forget that the UK is still the most centralised country in Europe where many local decisions and funding conversations are taken hundreds of miles away from the communities they affect. This is dangerous and divisive.
  1. In the North East there is plenty of evidence of what can be achieved when we work together locally – you just need to look down both banks of the Tyne to see that. Gateshead and Sunderland can both provide powerful case studies of this from about 1998 onwards.
  1. Working closely together in what is an artificial city region will be challenging but I still think the North East (despite the tribal loyalty to its constituent parts) can work as a cohesive area – although the mayoral issue may be problematic.
  1. We heard from business and local government that perception has often been a defining issue especially from the North east. Wearing the most hirsute of hair shirts has hampered us in the past and talking the region down during the debate will create its own problems as the perception quickly becomes reality.

The briefing took place in a building called The Core which rose from the ashes of the famous, old brewery site that once produced Newcastle Brown Ale and Kevin Keegan press conferences. As any local taxi driver will tell you that has now been well and truly devolved to another part of the county (that’s right Newcastle Brown Ale isn’t actually brewed here anymore see here)

The beer has been replaced with science and cloud computing at this site and for a city at the heart of the industrial revolution it seems fitting that the wheel has turned once more.

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