Democracy Made in England: Where Next for English Local Government?

Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 9th March 2022

In the context of the changing nature of UK governance, England remains an anomaly. While the centres of power in the rest of the UK have shifted away from Westminster over the last two decades, for England these changes have been limited.

Too often any transfer of decision making-powers has come as an afterthought – and where reforms have taken place these have been driven from the centre and done little to genuinely empower local government or the communities in which people live.

One of the most centralised nations in Europe

As a result, England remains one of the most centralised nations in Europe as measured by the local control of resources and the over-dependence on Whitehall decision making.

Unlike in Scotland and Wales, the citizens of England have been largely ignored when it comes to devolving power away from Westminster – England is the only part of the union whose people have not been consulted or offered a referendum on how they wish to be governed in the past 20 years.

But with a renewed discussion around where power should lie and devolving decisions away from Whitehall, there is an opportunity to address the lack of democracy across England and look again at devolution within it.

Ahead of the 2019 General Election the government promised ‘full devolution across England so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny’. A promise of devolution that now feels long forgotten. Instead, we saw the long-awaited White Paper dropped and in its place the debate turned to ‘Levelling Up’ instead.

The term has become one of the most commonly used phrases in politics – politicians of all stripes and none have now adopted it as their go-to slogan to refer to a variety of initiatives. At its heart, levelling up is about tackling the long-standing inequalities across the UK but has, so far, failed to provide the answers to England’s democratic deficit.

What we see remains a ‘Westminster-knows-best’ approach, where decisions are taken in Whitehall as to what power should be given away, not in the communities that want them.

Westminster doesn’t know best

The first principle of devolution should be that the people of England should have the right to decide on how they wish to be governed.

It’s clear that, so far, those calls for greater powers, for the large majority of councillors and authorities have not been met. A survey by the Electoral Reform Society of almost 800 local authority representatives found that two-thirds feel they lack the powers to properly represent the needs of their local community.

It is clear that, for many who serve their communities at the coalface of local democracy, questions remain unanswered about how relations between the centre and localities can be better structured in favour of local decision making. With so many local councillors feeling powerless to serve their constituents’ needs, we must find a better balance between those two levels of government that truly serves the interests of communities across England.

Democracy Made in England

Democracy Made in England begins to set out how a new relationship between national and local government can be created. How a policy of devolution in England could be developed and the principles which should underpin such a move. It is not for the centre at Westminster to decide how local communities should see themselves and how they should be governed but to set out how those communities can choose their own governance, how citizens can themselves reinvigorate local democracy.

Now is the time to rebuild our local democracy but, to do that, England can no longer be an afterthought.

Read the full report: Democracy Made in England - Where Next for English Local Government?

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