An English decentralisation decade?

Originally posted 15th September 2014

SheffieldS

Deputy PM Nick Clegg endorsed findings from the IPPR North report ‘Decentralisation Decade’ in Sheffield on Friday 12th September 2014

Comparisons to 2004

It’s fitting that the latest report from the IPPR North sets its sights on a future decade of decentralisation because it also reminds us to take stock of the political environment ten years ago. [The same good timing can be applied to the ResPublica report ‘Devo Max – Devo Manc’ published three days later on 15th September 2014].

In 2004, similar to now, the deputy PM and MP for a northern English city was campaigning on the benefits of greater decentralisation to a generally disinterested public while governance structures evolved in the background and warnings were voiced over a democratic deficit.

Decentralisation was still riding the wave from devolution campaigns in the home nations and London between 1997 and 1998 and the underlying thinking seemed to be that the English regions would follow suit, albeit using their own model. This hit the buffers somewhat when the 2004 referendum in the north east rejected plans for a regional assembly.

So what’s changed?

Without going into great depth, a lot has changed in English governance and economic development structures since then, not least the 1994 regional boundaries and agencies going out of favour, the political drive for localism, local mayors and support for combined local authorities, and the designation of the 2011 local enterprise partnerships (LEPs).

Centralisation of many functions has eroded and reshaped the middle tier(s) between local government and national government, as reflected in the IPPR North report’s recommendation to enable partnership bodies between local authorities and functional economic areas (e.g. LEPs, combined authorities, police forces) at a ‘mezzanine’ or sub-national level.

Some things haven’t changed though. The IPPR North report notes the continued lack of appetite for new tiers of government in England, while also recognising that imbalances from centralisation and public disenchantment with Westminster continue to exist.

Despite the IPPR North report being published within one week of the Scottish referendum, the publication of a national report on English decentralisation has still come as something of a surprise and raises questions whether its legacy will be to generate short-term publicity or longer-term policy impacts. Time will tell if decentralisation becomes a newly favoured version of ‘localism’.

Personal observations

1. Two main pillars: National government and local government are the two pillars of governance in England (excl. London) that generate the most engagement from the public and businesses, whereas functional economic areas and other regional levels mean many things to many people. On the one hand, middle-tier structures enable joint working between local authorities, promote economies of scale savings and act as a potential interface for decentralisation from central government. On the other hand, criticisms are levelled over unsuitable or changeable boundaries, democratic deficits, lack of necessity and poor value-for-money.

2. Flexible roles and geographies: A wide range of sub-national governance scales and structures operate in England, more so now compared to ten years ago. Instead of building up fixed identities or regional maps though, it might be more helpful to view the middle-tier of English governance as one flexible environment subject to changeable geographical boundaries that suit varying needs, conditions and demographics. Notably, the IPPR North report highlights how the Greater Manchester combined authorities model might be suitable for enabling decentralisation, but this may evolve over time as joint-working develops at one or more ‘mezzanine’ levels (e.g. across the north of England).  [Similarly, the ResPublica thinktank report ‘Devo Max – Devo Manc’ proposes considerable devolution of powers to the city-region].

3. Long-term planning: Too much flexibility carries its own risks too though. Any new governance structures that are set up through decentralisation should offer a level of certainty and confidence among citizens and businesses, potentially being promoted as protected, time-limited entities that are subject to regular scheduled reviews (much like the European structural funds or framework programmes). This also offers the benefit of smoother handovers to any future reorganisations of the sub-national level. Any entities with lifetimes covering multiple parliaments would require particular protection.

4. Democratic dilemma: Any serious decentralisation of powers raises questions of democratic accountability, with the decision to hold direct elections for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) representing one approach to addressing this. The continued lack of public appetite for middle-tier democracy in England creates a democratic dilemma however, whereby it may be more appropriate to form governance boards of directly elected local and/or national representatives. In any scenario, it looks likely that models of democracy for any new governance structures would have to be handled on a case by case basis.

5. Holding national government to account: There is a danger that perceived failings of centralisation become self-fulfilling and accepted wisdom, and that decentralisation is viewed as an easier option than tackling national government inadequacies. Before any significant decentralisation takes place, proposals would have to shine the spotlight on the national level and the ‘Westminster bubble’ to assess and demonstrate that imbalances or faults really are inherent in the system.

6. What about neighbourhoods?: The IPPR North report also touches upon the role for governance below local authority level, although it is still unclear how the role of parish or neighbourhood councils will develop beyond encouraging greater community participation.

Conclusions

The two pillars of local and national government seem to offer greatest stability and recognition among citizens and businesses, whereas history and evidence suggests that a well-functioning middle-tier plays a very important governance role as well. What this level looks like and how it supports any future decentralisation is open to argument however, aside from noting that one size doesn’t fit all.

For any future planning of middle-tier governance, it may be helpful to promote greater recognition of its flexible role, as well as a political commitment that any organisations operating at this level are given sufficient time, resources and security to make a mark.

References

Cox, E. Henderson, G. & Raikes, L. (2014) Decentralisation decade: A plan for economic prosperity, public service transformation and democratic renewal in England, IPPR North, www.ippr.org/publications/decentralisation-decade (retrieved 14th September 2014)

Blond, P. & Morrin, M. (2014) Devo Max – Devo Manc: Place-based public services, ResPublica, www.respublica.org.uk/item/Devo-Max-Devo-Manc-Place-based-public-services (retrieved 15th September 2014)

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