UK devolution: England’s turn next?

Graham Pearce
Graham Pearce

by Graham Pearce

The Scottish referendum has left Westminster politicians reeling. Alongside seeking a rapid constitutional fix in response to demands for the devolution of greater powers and resources to Edinburgh, the unanswered ‘English Question’, for so long merely the concern of constitutional anoraks, has taken centre stage. For decades political devolution in the UK was viewed as being confined to the Celtic fringe and despite rumblings of dissatisfaction around the West Lothian Question, politicians of all persuasions seemed content to ignore its wider and longer term potential impacts on UK government. In the absence of viable alternatives and perceived public apathy it seemed wise to leave the ‘English Question’ unanswered. The events in Scotland suggest that this approach is now untenable.

In reality the ‘English Question’ is multifaceted and potential solutions will inevitably depend on what element of the Question is being asked. For example, David Cameron’s immediate response has been to focus on inter-state relationships, suggesting that only English MPs should vote on English laws in the UK Parliament as a way of accommodating English interests within the post-devolution UK. Other proffered solutions include English devolution and a separate Parliament or fewer non English MPs in Westminster. Each sounds beguilingly simple, but none are straightforward either constitutionally or politically.

A second question concerns whether England needs devolution too. English government remains the most centralised of all the large countries in Western Europe. Transferring powers from Whitehall to the sub-national level is viewed as a way of responding to the democratic deficit felt by many people beyond the London ‘city state’ and improving the way England is governed. Since the financial crisis territorial disparities have widened leading to growing restlessness, especially in the North of England, about how regional and local interests are represented and the apparent unjustness of the application of the Barnett formula.

There has been no shortage of experiments in managing the government of England. New Labour flirted with elected regional government, but was rebuffed. Soon after a group of large urban authorities, led by the Core Cities Group, began to mobilize around ‘city-regions’ as the principal territorial reference points for sub-national economic governance. Nonetheless, there was no desire in Government for new city-regions to become political institutions. The election of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government in 2010 prompted a further round of reforms that claimed to herald a radical redistribution of power away from Westminster and Whitehall to councils, communities and homes across the nation. At the same time the Coalition set out plans to cut central government funding to local government by a quarter between 2010/11 and 2014/15. In an effort to generate greater public interest in local affairs proposals to establish mayors in the major cities were also introduced, but received little support

Alongside England’s 300 + local authorities 39 unelected and largely unaccountable Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), covering an eclectic group of functional geographies, have been established to help foster growth. The implication is that, apart from the LEPs and a handful of ‘Combined authorities’, for example in Greater Manchester and the North East, there is no formal tier of governance between the national and the local. Given the range of key strategic policy concerns that transcend the capacities of the multiplicity of local authorities, the lack of an intermediate layer of governance between the local and national with the necessary capacity, powers, funding and geographic coverage is hard to justify.

Not unexpectedly, the recent events in Scotland have prompted English local authorities to set out the case for the devolution of powers on the grounds that services should be made more responsive to local needs and priorities and delivery more accountable and transparent. Such transfers might also be reflected in increased turnouts at local elections. For example, the Conservative dominated County Councils have called for a new relationship between central and local government involving a package of devolved powers, including extensive fiscal devolution. In a similar vein the nine ‘Core Cities’ have asserted that continuing centralised control by Whitehall has contributed to their relative economic under-performance and that the devolution of powers afforded to London should be extended to other cities. Indeed, they argue that a radical, positive alternative to breaking up the UK should be UK-wide devolution involving the transfer of powers to the city and even the neighbourhood level.

This view is supported in a recent City Growth Commission report on infrastructure provision. It claims that individual cities need the freedom to operate as whole systems, making decisions in the best interests of their areas, rather than relying upon national government. Metropolitan authorities should also take on planning authority powers, aggregating up decision making to facilitate strategic investment across city-regions.

Perhaps the most cogent case for decentralisation has been made by the IPPR in its report, Decentralisation decade: A plan for economic prosperity, public service transformation and democratic renewal in England. It advocates a ten year long process of devolution to the sub-national level, with a stress on building on what institutions exist locally, rather than a further set of centrally imposed reforms. While acknowledging that there is no evident public support for an elected tier of regional government of the kind found in other EU states, it makes the case for collaboration across and above the LEPs and their constituent local authorities. It concludes that, ‘in relation to some key strategic transport and infrastructure decisions, for example, LEP areas are just too small (and England too large)’. Collaboration across wider geographies and between cities in the interest of economic development is highlighted though, oddly, the benefits of strategic planning across local authority units, to reflect wider functional geographies, are not spelt out.

Each of this set of proposals would inevitably involve the substantial reorganisation of sub-national bodies and their links with Whitehall. But what is the likelihood of this happening? On one hand it can be argued that the recent events in Scotland have unleashed powerful forces for devolution and decentralisation across the UK that can no longer be thwarted. Demands for greater autonomy in Northern Ireland and Wales, alongside Scotland, will doubtless be met in part, but what about England?

First, compared with the Continental counterparts, English local government has very limited powers and no constitutional protection against central government. Successive opposition parties have promised decentralisation, but when in office have failed to live up to this pledge. Second, apart from outliers such as Greater Manchester and some other Combined Authorities, there is not a great deal of evidence to show that local authorities have the scale and capacity to take on greater significant fiscal powers and freedoms in policy making and delivery or to collaborate with others. Indeed, the sheer number of authorities in England can be seen as an excuse for not devolving greater powers, while cooperation might be seen to run counter to localism’s emphasis on inter-authority competition. Third, while the English may in principal favour increased local discretion over how money is raised and spent in their areas, for the most part they expect local services to be delivered in equal measure across the entire country. In that respect fiscal decentralisation poses some difficult challenges. Fourth, apart from the creation of new unitary authorities, through the amalgamation of local authorities, any major transformation of local government boundaries would be greeted with public mistrust.

In summary, apart from minor reforms, the likelihood is that in England Whitehall will maintain its continuing dominance. Short of a political earthquake, Whitehall’s propensity for centralism, combined with variable local governance capacity and continued public spending cuts, present a set of barriers so great that attempts to engender genuine decentralisation seem doomed to fail. Indeed, many localities are likely to view new responsibilities, unless matched with guaranteed additional funds, as a poisoned chalice undermining assertions of any radical loosening in the grip of the Centre.

Graham Pearce (Formerly Professor of Public Policy and Management, Aston University)

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