Lessons from 30 Years of Attempting to Devolve Power in the UK Laura Fallon lfallon@arlingclose.com

Anyone struggling for some bedtime reading could do worse that to read this report by the Institute for Government, 'Achieving Political Decentralisation: Lessons from 30 year of attempting to devolve power in the UK'. The report isn’t new having been published in 2014, but as the title suggests the issue is hardly a new one either. The report is a quite academic look at the somewhat groundhog day (if you work in local government) conversation about how the UK is too centralised and that power needs to be devolved more. It raises some interesting themes and tries to find some practical solutions to this perennial problem.  

The cynical view of many people who work in or with local government is typically that devolution of power is something that central government talks about a lot but doesn’t actually want to do. When it comes down to it Whitehall bureaucrats just don’t want to relinquish much power, or don’t actually trust local authorities with handling their own money more or making more of their own decisions. This report argues that far from this being the case lots of people including those in central government genuinely want there to be more devolution, but find practical and ideological barriers to doing so.  

Part of the argument for this is that in some cases devolution has been very successfully implemented and has now formed so much of our national fabric that we hardly notice it anymore. Cases in point are the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Mayor of London. The success and wide popularity of devolution in these instances clearly demonstrates that it isn’t an impossible feat to achieve. However, the report also cites other schemes that have at best been a mixed success: police and crime commissioners, city deals, city mayors outside London, city regions and regional assemblies. The report doesn’t even start touching on issues such as business rate retention and council tax reform. 

The report cites 10 specific obstacles to more decentralisation but I’ll try and summarise them a bit here. As discussed, one is that central government can be reluctant to devolve power, particular if they are worried that sub-national authorities will mess things up and that central government will be left carrying the can. Somewhat more complex is that decentralisation might be desirable for some Whitehall departments but not others: DLUHC may be championing devolution, but if the Treasury don’t want to pay for the restructuring costs and the Department for Transport don’t want it messing with their pre-existing agenda for improving the trains then this will create problems. 

One way around this is to try and devolve power incrementally. Once devolved institutions can (hopefully) demonstrate competence and gain experience and maturity central government is more likely to trust them: creating a virtuous cycle where they can gain greater powers and greater competence, experience and maturity. It is also important that devolution receives a wide base of support and a clear directive from the Prime Minister (Tony Blair was a good example of this for Scotland and Wales), to help prevent too much in-fighting. Anyone attempting devolution should anticipate that these problems will occur and plan ways to solve them. 

Another problem is that the UK famously doesn’t have a written constitution. Sub-national entities don’t have any inherent protection as for examples states may have in the USA. This means central government can and does dismantle or reorganise sub-national agencies; sometimes on a whim and sometimes for political rather than sensible reasons (for example the abolition of the Greater London Council by Margret Thatcher who had a number of fallings out with Ken Livingstone). Local Government has been reorganised multiple times over the last three centuries. This ‘redisorganistion’ is not conducive to successful and permanent devolution. Having a referendum to support any reforms is one way to help prevent this: central government is far less likely to dismantle an institution that clearly has widespread public support. 

Another common problem is that being able to devolve power on the right geographic scale can be difficult. Areas can be too big or not reflect widely felt cultural identities: for example, the creation of a North East Assembly failed in a referendum, partly because the North East of England may be an area you can draw on a map but individuals will be more likely to associate their allegiance to a particular town or city. Transport authorities have to necessarily cover a reasonably big area however: outside of London encompassing only one city is unlikely to be on a sufficient scale to improve transport meaningfully. Devolution tends to work best when it is done along existing organisation and cultural dividing lines. Scotland is one very good example of this. 

Devolution that takes power away from existing positions of local power – such as local councillors - is also (unsurprisingly) likely to be strongly resisted by those in these positions. Local authorities are generally only likely to support reorganisation or the creation of sub-national agencies above them if they feel that a) they’re not going to be giving up power by doing so and b) the change will allow them to be better represented overall. The creation of the Greater London Authority in 1999 is one example of this working well: it didn’t abolish the 32 London Boroughs and through it the boroughs felt they could have more influence on local but also city-wide issues such as transport and housing.  

A final huge group of people who typically oppose devolution are the voting public. Many people either flat out don’t like the proposed devolution (widespread disapproval of the politicisation of the police created by PCCs is a good example of this) or they just don’t care. An understanding of how local government even works is at best tenuous for many ordinary people: an understanding of how a less centralised government is better than a more centralised government is a nuance beyond many more. In an environment where most people tend to distrust politicians, the argument that you should have and pay for another layer of government in between the local council and Westminster can be quite a hard sell. A fairly obvious solution is to attempt devolution when it is more likely to be popular and when the public think it will actually affect their lives. In London the creation of a central body in charge of transport was very popular because (as anyone who has ever lived in London and had to make small talk in any social situation ever will know) public transport is an issue that every Londoner cares about a lot. 

Whilst holding a referendum is in many cases a very good idea if you want to devolve something, in the case where the public is your barrier you may be much better off just ramming it through without a plebiscite. This may work in that you will get your devolution, but I would argue it may not help your cause in the longer term (as well as being somewhat morally questionable). Police and Crime Commissioners, which were introduced without a referendum, are one example of this. Although they exist, they are widely viewed with cynicism and disapproval and turnout in elections for them is embarrassingly low: calls to abolish them remain common. 

This article is clearly pitched at ‘devolution’ largely meaning the creating of additional sub-national bodies rather than just giving more powers to existing local government organisations. Whilst this is fine if this is what the article is looking at, if you are wanting to talk about how to make devolution successful this is missing out a quite key element of the puzzle. Working with the organisations you already have may in many cases be better than creating a new one. Steps such as reducing the limit placed on councils to raise council tax and letting councils keep more of their business rates would achieve devolution and probably cost a lot less than making lots of new combined authorities or electing lots of new mayors. They would and do experience many of the same barriers as those discussed here however. 

The article I think makes an excellent point that as with most things change is best done when it is incremental. Although there are certainly some politicians who want to tear up the status quo and change everything this will seldom work in practice. Change is hard, it will take time, that’s not to say it can never be done.

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