Modern-day England is more centralised than any comparable western European nation. This statement remains true whether centralisation is measured by devolution of spending or revenue raising or the autonomy enjoyed by local policymakers. 

But why should we care? 

For many reasons, according to the Constitution Reform Group (CRG), which makes a compelling case in its new paper for the benefits that devolution could bring to England. 

Failure to devolve powers is entrenching England’s regional inequalities. By contrasting England’s governance with other comparable nations, academic analysis has identified a clear link between England’s uneven socioeconomic performance and the centralisation of its governance. 

Nor is devolution solely in the interests of those from deprived regions: everyone stands to gain, insists Prof John Denham, a former Labour minister and co-author of “The Local Governance of England”, who was speaking today at the Institute for Government, alongside both Sir David Lidington, co-author and former Tory minister, and Lord Salisbury, chairman of the CRG, who is also chairman of Reaction. Denham insisted that giving local authorities more powers, rather than having them constantly “pitching to Whitehall’s dragon’s den”, will mean public money is better spent, and better accounted for, improving the delivery of public services across England. 

Devolving power to local leaders will also rebuild trust in democracy, insists Lidington: “What we are offering will help to overcome a visible and deepening alienation from politicians”. 

Another hope, adds Lidington, is that devolution will free MPs up to focus on what they are actually elected to do: “Scrutinise legislation”. Much of his time as an MP for Aylesbury between 1992 and 2019, he recalls, was spent assisting his constituents with matters that should have been for a mayor or local councillors. “But many [constituents] didn’t even know who their local councillors were”. 

The CRG is hardly the first to acknowledge the value of devolving additional powers and resources to local leaders. Yet progress to date has been slow. Meaning the governance of England has been left largely unchanged since 1998, when a new UK constitutional settlement established devolved governments in Wales and Scotland, an elected Mayor and Assembly of London and devolved institutions for Northern Ireland. 

Why would the CRG’s efforts to reform the national governance of England be any more successful than other recent attempts?

The group has identified both the achievements of devolution policy to date – as well as the obstacles preventing more radical change. 

The popularity of some regional mayors is the first example that springs to mind for many in England, when asked to point to an achievement of devolution policy to date. Denham and Lidington agree that some of England’s mayors have been very effective, and have become well-recognised advocates for their regions. However the mayoral model is generally working better in city regions than in rural areas, with free-standing towns and smaller cities.

Which points to a larger problem with devolving powers. Directly elected mayors often cover very diverse communities, from small cities to deeply rural locations. The term “devolution” is used widely and loosely, creating uncertainties over devolved geographies and how big an authority needs to be. In England, says Denham “it’s hard to construct a set of regional authorities that reflects a real, local, regional identity”.

A challenge, then, for devolution policy is to demonstrate that it can deliver the right powers and resources to the appropriate level, from the very local to the regional. To meet this challenge, the CRG proposes creating legislation that would give local and combined authorities the legal powers to further devolve their own responsibilities. Combined Local Authorities and Upper-Tier Authorities would have a legal duty to set out how they would devolve their own responsibilities to the lowest possible level including, district, town and parish councils. Allowing them to further devolve their responsibilities would address the limitations of relying on a single model of local devolution for the diversity of rural, small town and larger urban areas of England. 

Constitutional reform is also at the heart of the CRG’s vision. At present, London aside, English local government doesn’t have a clear constitutional status and it has no formal role in shaping devolution policy. In other words, central government alone determines which powers and resources might be the subject of devolution. The CRG proposes creating a new statutory body to represent England’s system of devolved local government. Representatives of local government would then work alongside central government to shape devolution, giving local authorities more of a say in how the policies they will be affected by are developed. 

The fact that many of the attempts to devolve powers in England in recent years have been largely unfruitful isn’t a reason to abandon the project. On the contrary, says Denham, it’s a reason to push for a devolution project that is much more ambitious in scale. 

To date, too few powers or resources have been devolved to make a real difference. 

Which brings us to the critical question of funding. As the CRG points out, English local government has experienced a long period of deep austerity, government grants have been significantly reduced and, in the early 2020s, a rising number of local authorities have warned of impending severe financial difficulties. Devolution will not succeed, argues the CRG, unless local and combined authorities can rely on sufficient, predictable and consistent funding to underpin their autonomy.

That said, according to the CRG, devolution is, in principle, desirable whatever the level of funding available since it strengthens accountability for the use of public money (by making it clearer where responsibility for policy outcomes lies) and it improves the effectiveness with which public money is spent.  

If we apply this logic, then one could go even further and argue that devolution becomes more important the less money that is available.

The CRG is placing an emphasis on allowing local areas to make their own choices. It is thus inevitable that some will make better choices than others. But the hope, says Lidington, is that areas performing less well will soon learn from their counterparts doing better. Allowing for local innovation will provide a basis of evidence that, ultimately, could drive improvements everywhere.

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