What the ‘northern powerhouse’ will mean for how services are run, how public money is spent, and how people vote in the north, is currently the subject of great political debate. But we also need to reflect on what the new wave of devolution will mean for women. As new institutions are created and local politicians work to re-energise regional economies, there is a real opportunity to speed up the pace of change on gender equality. But there is a risk too that we may simply turn back the clock.
Devolution to Scotland and Wales in the late 90s saw some important wins for women’s representation. The Welsh Assembly achieved 50:50 representation 2003. Scotland too outperforms the House of Commons, with a third of MSPs being women.
These successes were due in no small part to the efforts of politicians and campaigners who fought for the importance of gender equality as part of the new politics and fresh start offered by devolution. But will we see this step change re-created as the government devolves to coalitions of local authorities? As yet, there is little evidence of the sustained effort and organisation that made these high watermarks of gender balance possible. In fact, the new model of devolution risks going backwards on women’s representation.
Local government remains dominated by men. Whilst there are a higher proportion of female councillors than MPs (33 per cent vs 29 per cent) fewer of these women are in decision making positions. The Treasury’s price for devolution is a directly elected mayor, but only four of the 18 directly elected mayors in England are women.
In many respects the powers of these new mayors are fairly limited, with the constituent boroughs’ leaders holding important vetoes. But only 15 per cent of English council leaders are women. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority – the trail blazer for devolution – has 10 borough members and only one is led by a woman. Westminster is becoming (painfully slowly) less male with a third of cabinet members now female and the highest ever proportion of female MPs. But these women won’t be making many of the most important decisions about skills, business growth and service delivery anymore – (mostly) men in local government will be.
Just as important as who holds power is the kind of economies these new regions create. Many of the deals focus heavily on devolved skills funding, and so devolved authorities need to seize this opportunity to break down the highly segregated skills base of the UK. Women are more likely to be in low skilled jobs than men (despite the fact that women do better at all levels of education now). Additionally where women undertake vocational training the results are highly gendered. There is a £2000 gender pay gap at apprentice level; in 2013 nearly 13,000 men completed engineering apprenticeships compared with only 400 women. Apprenticeships are publicly funded and strategic decisions about adult skills and apprenticeships form part of the devolution packages on offer. This must be used to rebalance who gets access to the best opportunities.
There are also opportunities for the regions to use their local business rate base to fund growth – but what kind of infrastructure will they invest in? Transport and housing are rightly given great emphasis, but childcare is a crucial component of our economic and social infrastructure. The current childcare system is a patchwork of provision which doesn’t reflect the working experiences of many low income families. For many parents, and particularly lone parents, the hours they work are constrained by the hours of childcare they can find and afford. When childcare responsibilities make work unviable or unaffordable we know that it is most often women who drop out of the labour market or restrict their hours. This is bad for them but also for our economy: we are failing to get the most out of the talent and potential of too many women.
But childcare is only part of the answer here. As people live longer and social care budgets are squeezed, caring for ageing relatives as well as our children will increasingly become a fact of life for many more women and men. If we continue with the current models of work we risk seeing growing numbers of people drop out as they are unable to balance personal responsibilities with work. But new locally-grown economies have an opportunity to develop jobs and industries that allow those disadvantaged by the current model to thrive. So devolved authorities must support firms to create better quality part-time and flexible roles.
All this comes against the backdrop of huge cuts to local government funding. The pressure on councils cannot be overestimated. We know that women are more likely to need to call upon public services from social care to the women’s refuges which have seen funding plummet. In recent years devolution has often meant greater responsibilities with a smaller budget. But as more areas step forward to make devolution deals, I hope they will still be ambitious about the potential they have to create new ways of investing public money and encouraging economic growth to narrow the gaps between women and men.