What can we learn from the evolution of English devolution?

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 9th March 2021

There has been considerable discussion about the ‘Union’ and efforts to save it in recent months, given the increasing support for nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, and growing talk of a border poll in Northern Ireland. The latest in these developments was the news that the newly appointed head of the so-called ‘Union Unit’ inside No. 10 had quit after only two weeks on the job – not the most promising start for efforts to repair the UK’s strained constitutional settlement.

What about England?

One topic that has been missing from many of these discussions around the Union is a conversation about England, its governance and place within the UK’s constitutional order. It has become commonplace for constitutional observers to claim that ‘England is the gaping hole in the devolution settlement’. Indeed, unlike the developments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the past twenty years, which have led to considerable powers being devolved, England remains one of the most centralised countries in Western Europe and is still run primarily through powerful UK-wide institutions.

Where devolution has occurred within England, the process has itself been led from the centre and has occurred in a piecemeal and top-down manner, with limited attempts to engage local leaders and, most importantly, the local population. This is vividly illustrated by the fact that English citizens – apart from those living in London and the North East at the time of the 1998 and 2004 referendums respectively – have never been explicitly consulted or offered a referendum on how they wish to be governed at the sub-national level.

It was therefore extremely welcome to see the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs select committee (PACAC) launch an inquiry into the evolution of devolution in England, to which the ERS responded back in December.

Lessons for English devolution

A variety of organisations and experts responded to PACAC’s call for evidence – ranging from combined authorities and county councils to academics, campaigners and membership organisations.

Though there are many points of difference among respondents with regards to the aims, principles, purpose and future of devolution in England – with some, for example, favouring the extension of the current Combined Authority/elected mayor model across England, and others advocating the establishment of an English parliament – there appears to be broad consensus around certain key issues.

England has been given decentralisation, not real devolution.

Many respondents highlighted the fact that, despite the rhetoric, devolution in England cannot be classified as such arguing the current arrangements could be more accurately described as ‘delegation with some political decentralisation’ than actual devolution.’ Some viewed the current devolution deals as a form of ‘elite co-option’, with local leaders and stakeholders being merely the ‘delivery arm’ of central government priorities with little autonomy or control, no meaningful powers, reliant on the Treasury for funding and thus unable to plan for the medium- or long-term.

The lack of meaningful devolution is also reflected in the mismatch between the powers and responsibilities handed down, with localities being held to account for policies and outcomes which they do not have the powers or resources to address.

The covid-19 crisis has brought devolution in England to the fore

For many respondents, the covid-19 crisis ‘has revealed the limitations of the UK’s heavily centralised system of government’ and highlighted the important role of local government in delivering more effective policy responses. It has also raised the profile of local leaders and cemented their (soft) power as representatives with the authority to speak for their areas. But as mentioned above, this symbolic power has been hindered by the lack of meaningful powers to enact changes in their communities.

A ‘menu’ for devolution

There was broad agreement that the government should offer all localities in England a baseline framework for devolution, setting out a ‘palette of devolved powers’ that each local area can draw down, including long-term funding settlements (and, for some respondents, even fiscal devolution) to provide areas with certainty, flexibility, and the ability to plan for the long term.

Beyond the baseline suite of powers available to all local areas, many respondents felt it should be up to individual areas to determine the governance arrangements most suited to their localities, and that asymmetry should be welcomed and accepted as an inevitable consequence of genuine bottom-up devolution: ‘This is far more important that whether devolution looks ‘neat’ or consistent from Whitehall.

The importance of place

Linked to the above is the belief that any approach to devolution needs to be ‘place-based’, bottom-up, and locally led with decisions ‘done with local areas, not done to local areas.’ Decisions on devolution should not be imposed uniformly, but carried out in consideration of local identities, communities and links, and in consultation and collaboration with local leaders, stakeholders and citizens.

Genuine public involvement from the bottom-up

A large majority of respondents highlighted that devolution should genuinely involve English citizens noting the importance of ‘purchase and identity’ from local people. So far, public debate about governance is underdeveloped in England, which means that devolution is not democratically ‘anchored’ in local communities. The level at which devolution should occur should take into account the geographies and identities that most resonate with people and which match their lived experience – for many, for example, the failure of the 2004 North East referendum was emblematic of the pitfalls of a top-down attempt at imposing devolutionary structures with which people did not identify.

Many argued that a constitutional convention or citizens’ assemblies should be set up to allow for citizen involvement in determining the governance of England, not as a ‘post-hoc consultation after the fact, but as an inbuilt part of the decision-making process.

Reforming the House of Lords

Moving beyond local-level devolutionary arrangements, some respondents addressed how to integrate English devolution within the UK’s wider constitutional settlement. Some said that the machinery of government should be reformed so as to accommodate the representation of England and improve intergovernmental relations. In this regard, some argued that the House of Lords should be replaced with an elected senate of the nations and regions, which ‘would help to strengthen links and practical cooperation across different parts of the UK’ and provide a forum for England’s localities to engage on English issues. DevoConnect similarly argued that ‘the long overdue reform of the House of Lords should consider a Senate structure which includes representatives of each of the sub regions, regions and nations of the UK elected by some form of proportional representation’ arguing such an approach could ensure parliament took a more devolved approach to governance.

What next?

As one respondent put it, ‘devolution is a journey not a one-off bid for back-door reform’. The responses to PACAC’s inquiry show that the debate on English devolution has become more nuanced, sophisticated, and aware of some of the errors that have been made in the English devolution journey so far. In particular, there is broad agreement on the fact that English devolution has been a top-down, centrally-driven process, with little space for public input and that this needs to be addressed – something which we’ve long called for at the ERS.

Despite having been delayed, the government has committed to publishing their white paper on devolution by the end of the year, and we hope that they will take these important contributions into account.

Though the devolution debate has been less developed in England than in the other nations, we know that public opinion on devolution can shift over time, even if it starts from a relatively low baseline, and can move quickly. The case of Wales is emblematic in this respect, with calls for more powers and even independence growing as the nation makes full use of its devolved powers. With the pandemic highlighting the issue of where power lies in England more clearly, the case for change is continuing to grow.

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