The new Brown Review promises local say on skills and research

It's not just about abolishing the Lords...

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Most coverage of the final report on the Commission on the UK’s Future report has focused on reforms to the House of Lords.

That, to be fair, has been a richly trailed proposal for constitutional intervention of the sort that was always going to overshadow the other recommendings. This is a note about the other stuff – much of which will be of interest to the higher education sector.

The thrust of Gordon Brown’s work (“A new Britain” – dare we call it the Brown Review?) is a pean to localism – or as he puts it, ensuring the right powers are in the right places. He calls on a Labour government to “empower” our cities, towns, and regions, with plans that would see local government, mayors, and combined authorities collaborate in the interests of the area.

It’s difficult to read without comparing it to Michael Gove’s levelling up white paper. Both would see local powers to address research and skills needs as part of a suite of new plans focused on economic growth. The Brown difference adds local democratic oversight to these plans.

So local government would get new powers to generate revenue, make growth and prosperity plans, provide infrastructure (including accessing investment and legislative backing) and play a key role in the design and delivery of “place-based, innovation-led” research and development. This would play a central part in efforts towards meeting a target of 3 per cent of GDP spent on research and development.

On that latter, the parallel for me is with the “local skills improvement plans” introduced in the 2021 Skills and Post-16 Education Act – with local leaders taking responsibility for the innovation needs alongside the skills needs (including devolved control of FE colleges of local industry. Labour would bring elected, accountable, power into the LSIP determination process, rather than relying entirely on the good sense of chambers of commerce.

There are plans for a local commissioning role for careers services too, all backed up by a new UK-wide skills survey. This would tie in to the work of newly devolved job centres.

As is common with government statements, “universities” when they do turn up are “world leading”. In the review’s plan universities would be included in local economic strategic decision making, alongside the NHS. The UK Infrastructure Bank would “assist and advise universities… providing matched funding of investments in local spinouts”. Because not every part of the UK has a local university we would see the sector encouraged to join partnerships across the whole country.

Things can only get better

But the headlines were always going to be plans for an “assembly of the nations and regions” (ANR) – the new, elected, second chamber offering legislative scrutiny. The new arrangements would see the Commons continue to be the “main” chamber – forming governments, making spending decisions, and generally functioning as the main focus of parliamentary life.

Labour would embed the long-standing tradition of the Lords not rejecting legislation (the Salisbury Convention) into statute. This would actually extend Salisbury – which currently only applies to measures in the manifesto of the government of the day, and permits “delaying” legislation. The ANR would play a special role in “local legislation” – laws stemming from identified local needs – as well as retaining the Lords’ role in expert scrutiny.

And who would do this scrutiny? Labour is clear that a second chamber, three quarters smaller than the current Lords (so, around 200 people) would be regionally elected on a different electoral cycle than the commons. Much of this detail will be consulted on before implementation.

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