31/03/2017 13:16 BST | Updated 01/04/2018 06:12 BST

Devolution Will Hand Huge Power To Local Leaders: We Must Have More Women In The Room

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At the beginning of May, six regions of England will go to the polls to elect new Mayors of Combined Authorities, giving them control over public spending and the ability to make investment decisions on everything from infrastructure, to the NHS. The elections mark a historic moment in the recent wave of devolution, which aims to hand back control from Westminster to regions and communities.

The devolution of power to local and regional levels has the potential to radically reshape and improve England's democracy. But at the moment, there's a risk that far from empowering all members of society, devolution processes hand more power to already powerful groups -in simple terms, to the 'male, pale and stale'. Trump caused outrage in January when he signed away the reproductive rights of women in developing countries surrounded by an all-white-male team, and rightly so. Yet closer to home, the Greater Manchester devolution deal in 2014 was signed by 12 white men, with a similarly embarrassing photo. This wasn't a one off; women are underrepresented across local and regional government. Just 55 out of 330 council leaders and four out of sixteen directly elected local authority mayors are women. The region with the longest standing devolution deal, London, has never had a female mayor.

Trump's photo got the public's attention because it so blatantly failed to include the people who would be affected or who could legitimately represent those affected. Was the Greater Manchester devolution deal photo so different? Local government, and the new combined authorities - composed of local authorities represented by their leaders - make hugely important decisions about policies that affect women as much as men. Combined authorities will have power over investment in further education courses, in transport links between different areas, in housing and will set the economic strategy for their area. Some have tax-raising powers and responsibility for NHS budgets. This is a far cry from the stereotypical image of local government organising waste collection.

Many local government policy areas actually have a much greater impact on women than men. For example, local government has oversight of childcare provision as well as responsibility for delivering and funding social care (cut by more than £5billion since 2010). Women, who in 2017 still shoulder the greatest burden of caring responsibilities in the family, are simply more affected by decisions on who gets state-funded care, and how it's delivered. Women need proper, legitimate representation for their voices to be heard, and for the services that affect them disproportionately to be as highly prioritised as other areas. The Northern Powerhouse may need rail links, broadband and roads to succeed, but it will also require 'social infrastructure', such as high quality early-years childcare and services that support families - especially women - with caring responsibilities.

Women MPs including Trudy Harrison and Jess Phillips have made the case that the job of gender equality in our national parliament is not yet done. They're absolutely correct; but as well as parliamentary democracy, we must turn our attention to local and regional government. Several organisations are rising to this challenge, particularly in the North. DivaManc is working to include the views of diverse groups of women in Greater Manchester's devolution process, ensuring the 'opportunities, wishes, fears and contributions of Greater Manchester women and girls' are reflected. The People's Powerhouse convention, set up by two council chiefs - Jo Miller and Donna Hall - will bring together policymakers, local people and practitioners 'to work together to shape the kind of north we all want to live and work in' - in contrast to a recent Northern Powerhouse conference in which only one-in-seven speakers were women. Our own work at IPPR is looking at what we can learn from initiatives in other countries to improve gender representation in local and regional government.

It's great to see the energy behind projects like DivaManc and the People's Powerhouse - as Jo Miller has said, 'the sisters are roaring'. But to make gender equality in local and regional government a reality, this pressure must be sustained. The current process of devolution places England's democracy at a crossroads. On the one hand, there's a risk that power is handed to people who don't represent the communities they claim to. On the other, we have the opportunity to re-evaluate our democratic processes and institutions, and make sure gender equality is designed in from the start. Let's choose the second; it is the twenty-first century, after all.

Carys Roberts is a Research Fellow at IPPR, the progressive policy think tank, and tweets @carysroberts

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