The platitude that English devolution has become accepted across the political spectrum as a positive ambition is hard to dispute, but it often feels like such statements from the centre are made on autopilot. The reality of progress towards devolution has too often lagged behind the rhetoric. Now the devolution agenda is at a moment of uncertainty, possibly stagnation. And yet the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that local government can be trusted to deliver. The challenges of the recovery demand decision-making be devolved to local leaders. The forthcoming white paper on devolution and recovery is a rare opportunity to turn off the autopilot and demonstrate real central government commitment.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Devolution has conducted a major inquiry into how central government can work more effectively to devolve powers to local areas so that every community can exercise more power over the issues that affect them. The APPG found that across a whole range of challenges, putting power and resources in the hands of democratically elected local leaders delivers better outcomes and gives communities a greater opportunity to shape the future of their local areas.
The pandemic has demonstrated the value of local leaders and the role of councils in delivering for their communities. Local government’s response to Covid-19 has been more flexible, effective and responsive than aspects of the central government response, in part because the widest range of social and economic factors are often only visible to leaders rooted in the local community. These success stories come from genuine co-production and partnership between the centre and localities. Local leaders have demonstrated that big national challenges need place-based responses.
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The debate about devolution has been dominated by central government for too long. Westminster and Whitehall have set the pace and limited the scope of transferring powers, resources and decision-making to local authorities. In some parts of England, the creation of metro mayors has started to deliver real benefits, but too much of the country has been put in the devolution slow lane. Whatever your view is about leaving the European Union, it can only be seen as a lost opportunity if policies and funding that were previously labelled “Brussels” and “Strasbourg” are simply re-labelled as “Westminster” and “Whitehall”.
The UK has one of the most regionally unequal economies in the world. We should look to learn lessons from our international partners, many of whom are governed successfully with a more decentralised model. Local authorities must have the powers to support the recovery according to the needs of their own area. The system of local government taxation, already under strain, is arguably no longer sustainable, and local authorities need greater power to set revenues locally. However, many involved in the APPG report took the view that fiscal devolution should not only mean the devolution of taxation, with concerns that many council areas would lose out from a wholesale move from central grants to local revenue-raising.
It was therefore felt that ongoing redistribution through the grant system and direct central government spending would remain essential. Or at least, the radicalism that would be needed to make this no longer the case was just too large a step to take yet in this far from fully mature stage of progress to devolution. Just as important is the ability for local authorities to plan for the long term and set multi-year place-based budgets, instead of relying on short-term “penny packet” funding streams from Whitehall.
Effective devolution has been held back by both constitution and culture. The UK is one of the most centralised of any advanced democracy. Virtually all British governments claim to be in favour of devolution and localism, but the actual appetite for “allowing” power and decision-making to reside at a local level is much more variable. Despite its long history, English local government is not always treated with due respect in Westminster or Whitehall. Individual government departments have too great an ability to limit the genuine devolution of powers and resources and can operate as silos with inflexible national priorities that are not culturally or organisationally equipped to support local leadership.
Centralised structures have ossified into a centralist culture. A “one size fits all” approach is seen as the default for any policy priority. As a result, too much effort is usually spent by local government in trying to defragment disparate top-down policy interventions to meet the opportunities and challenges of local areas. The bidding culture is reflective of this. Councils and local business leaders have to place a bid into Whitehall to persuade a team of people – with little to no knowledge of the place in question – that they understand their own area. Councils, of course, put in bids when such pots are announced and, of course, they and local MPs celebrate when they are “awarded” to them, but that does not mean that local councils raising funds and deciding where to spend them and then being judged upon that in local elections is not the better way. It is.
The government’s deal-based approach linked to the creation of metro mayors played a clear role in kick-starting the process of English devolution, but it has run its useful course. Given the scale of the economic and social challenges ahead, the need to make swift progress and to recognise that metro mayors are unlikely to be appropriate for every community, the government needs to widen its approach and consider new models. The APPG’s report calls for an English devolution taskforce, co-chaired by a cabinet minister and a council leader to work together and define a new baseline of powers to be made available to every local council. Working together we can improve public services and rebuild the economy.
Andrew Lewer MP is the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Devolution.
This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on regional development. You can download the full edition here.