George Osborne’s ‘northern powerhouse’ rhetoric was embarrassingly compromised recently when it emerged that the Department for Business planned to shut its biggest office outside London – in Sheffield. As we report today, the steel city is not taking this setback lying down.
As ever with the chancellor, it is never easy to distinguish genuine good intentions from raw political calculation. In last week’s budget speech, for example, he trumpeted the latest steps in his ‘devolution revolution’ – while simultaneously announcing that responsibility for our schools is to pass en bloc from local councillors to Whitehall bureaucrats.
Such a glaring contradiction suggests we should reserve judgement on his eyecatching move to devolve greater powers over criminal justice. On its face, this is welcome. Of course, the administration of justice per se must not become a postcode lottery, but inner-city Manchester faces different challenges from downtown Weybridge and discrete problems demand discrete solutions.
Lawyers will cautiously welcome the opportunity to help innovate – but the chance to ‘go first’ brings risks. As one Manchester solicitor put it, if those working in the north-west are to be guinea pigs for ‘testing’ new ideas, it could be costly and disruptive for an already overstretched profession to adapt to radically different ways of working. Ministers and local policymakers should proceed with care.