Published on 21 August 2023
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Trouble ahead for the deals-based approach to English devolution?

The success of English devolution requires a coherent and long-term framework that addresses the challenges with the Government’s current approach, write Jack Shaw and Jack Newman.

From regions to city regions

Over the last decade, English devolution has evolved, largely uncoordinated, through a series of disconnected policy priorities. This represents a departure from New Labour’s more comprehensive model which included the establishment of nine regional development agencies across England and plans for an assembly in each region. This model unravelled when the North East referendum failed to secure public support in 2004 and the regional development agencies were abolished in 2010 by the Conservative-led coalition.

Since 2010, the incoherence and asymmetry of devolution has accelerated. There has been a plethora of interventions including the Big Society, Northern Powerhouse, local industrial strategies, city deals and ‘levelling up’ which have all featured an element of devolution. Also, spatial geographies have increased in complexity with the emergence of a diverse range of institutions with overlapping boundaries and remits, such as Police and Crime Commissioners and Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Progress is still contested and tentative, but a clearer direction of travel is now emerging, as outlined more recently in the English Devolution Accountability Framework and the Levelling Up the UK White Paper. This draws on the Manchester model whereby ‘constituent’ local authorities coalesce around a functional economic geography with a clear identity, led by a directly elected mayor and supported with a package of powers and funding from central government. The ‘menu’ of powers available to combined authorities – from skills and transport to climate resilience and employment support – is steadily increasing as new deals are negotiated.

However, the issue with this model is that as further deals are struck, new challenges have emerged alongside long-standing concerns. These tensions primarily concern geography, structural reorganisation and directly elected mayors.  

Contested geographies

There is a growing number of examples of contested geographies. Functional economic geographies do not always align with the culture and identity of places, and there is no clear framework to manage this tension. There has been significant debate over whether Leicester should have been included in the East Midlands Combined Authority, while similar questions were asked in the West of England, suggesting that both functional economic geographies and identities are indeterminate and porous.

There is a lack of transparency in the deal-making process too, with the Government often favouring territorial configurations that command limited support. For example, the Government rejected a deal put forward by Portsmouth, Southampton and the Isle of Wight and these authorities have now taken the decision not to pursue alternative arrangements. The opaque process through which these decisions are made reflects the asymmetric power relationship between Whitehall and local authorities and risks politicising the deal-making process, given that only one authority – Conservative-run Hampshire County Council – did not favour the deal. There has also been disquiet about the prospect of Warwickshire joining the West Midlands Combined Authority, in part because of the impact on its political make-up; Coventry City Council threatened to veto Warwickshire’s inclusion which would risk “ripping up” the combined authority.

And there is a broader incoherence in the deal-making process which risks creating ‘liminal spaces’ whereby some areas have few options because of deals struck by their neighbours. For example, Cumbria has questioned whether it will have a sufficient voice if it pursues a deal alone, but its neighbour, Lancashire, is seeking its own settlement. A deal for Cumbria would make it the smallest combined authority, marginally over the minimum population threshold. Meanwhile the geography and identity of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole does not sit neatly with a Hampshire, Solent or Dorset settlement. The implication of this challenge is poorly understood and there is no recognition by the Government about how it might be resolved.

Where does reorganisation fit within this debate?

The recent reorganisation of Cumbria into two unitary authorities also put the question of structural reform in the spotlight. There is the question whether unitarisation should precede or succeed devolution – or whether it’s something entirely separate. Cumbria’s unitaries have suggested that reorganisation has stalled their devolution plans, as has North Yorkshire Council, which is now preoccupied with joining up 55 IT systems that operated across its eight authorities. Meanwhile, the Government has suggested that reorganisation is not a prerequisite for devolution, but Whitehall is reportedly engaging with authorities about the prospect of unitarisation once a devolution settlement has been reached. Recently, Michael Gove’s predecessor, Greg Clark, has been more explicit in suggesting that a debate about unitarisation needs to happen in the next Parliament. Though this is not a new challenge and follows long-stranding recommendations set out by the Royal Commission on Local Government, its re-emergence suggests Whitehall believes devolution settlements are necessary but not sufficient to improve the coherence of sub-national government. 

There is also a related question about how combined authorities are constituted. In Lancashire and Essex, for example, there is the prospect of large counties forming combined authorities with much smaller unitary authorities. Lancashire County Council has almost five times the population of Blackpool and Blackburn, so partnerships require sensitive negotiation to ensure counties do not ‘concede power’ to unitaries, while also ensuring that unitaries are adequately represented.

Finally, the prospect of larger authorities (the creation of North Yorkshire Council made it the largest authority in England) has renewed questions over the role of neighbourhood-level governance, such as town and parish councils, given the Government is yet to publish its Review of Neighbourhood Governance. Labour’s Commission on the UK’s Future has also promised ‘double devolution’ and its Community Wealth Commission is expected to report shortly. The future role of neighbourhood governance is far from clear and requires clarity.

Resistance to mayors

There is significant resistance – especially outside metropolitan areas – to the prospect of more elected mayors. While the Government has accommodated this by creating alternative arrangements in the English Devolution Accountability Framework, its commitment rings hollow in practice given it is prioritising mayoral deals.

Regardless, there is significant variation in the powers attributed to elected mayors, with the Mayor of the West of England lacking powers common elsewhere, such as the power to raise a ‘mayoral precept’ or the ability to vote on all budgeting decisions. As a result, the benefits attributed to directly elected mayors are in some cases difficult to identify.

The resistance to mayors is also political in nature and set against the backdrop of the next general election which is likely to delay several deals. There is appetite in Cornwall to pause negotiations for a devolution deal in the hope of securing a better settlement under the next government. Somerset has also reportedly been advised that a deal will not be agreed before an election.

With different areas having different arrangements, the resources and powers available to places will continue to diverge. This twin-track approach to deal-making risks exacerbating asymmetric devolution and promoting uneven economic development and poses longer-term questions about the legitimacy and viability of combined authorities as well as the public understanding of them.

What does this mean for the Government’s future direction of travel?

On one level, the Government’s incremental approach is flexible and responsive, which is essential to ensuring institutions have legitimacy and longevity. However, this same incrementalism requires local actors to make ‘order out of chaos’ – a dynamic that has been described in the academic literature as ‘disorganised devolution’.

The Government’s qualified commitment to negotiating a deal with “every area that wants one” by 2030 is also problematic. This is particularly concerning given the more straightforward deals have been struck and the remaining deals present some major challenges. The absence of a strategic framework that underpins this process provides little reassurance that the Government will mitigate existing concerns, meaning it risks leaving English devolution fragmented.

In the first instance, a clearer picture of English devolution is required over the longer term. This should include a deadline by which the ‘devolution map’ is complete, alongside an explicit commitment to ensuring all areas have a deal. There is also a need for transparency when it comes to the implications of different governance arrangements. The significant variation in the responsibilities established in different combined authorities in one respect reflects the ‘earned autonomy’ available to well-run authorities, but at the same time poses a challenge to the coherence of sub-national governance, raising concerns about the acceleration of ‘deeper’ trailblazer devolution in some places at the expense of ‘broader’ devolution in all places.

To mitigate this, clarity about how other authorities can make similar progress should be established. It is also unclear what the forthcoming general election means for the deal-making process. If Labour gains power, will they continue the same piecemeal approach? What is currently absent on both sides of the political divide is an understanding of how short-term deal-making fits into a strategic longer-term vision relating to how England is to be governed. Addressing this challenge is essential to realising the potential that devolution offers.

Related report: “Devolving English government” by Michael Kenny & Jack Newman.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Jack Shaw

Affiliated Researcher

Jack Shaw is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Mile End Institute and an Affiliated Researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. He works across regional economic policy, devolution...

Dr Jack Newman

Jack Newman is a Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, where he focuses on how healthy urban development can be realised though devolution and cross-government working. Previously, Jack worked at...

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