Published on 4 April 2024
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The accountability challenge in English devolution

As the process of English devolution takes place against a backdrop of financial crisis and dramatic decline in local government, Jack Newman, Sam Warner, Michael Kenny and Andy Westwood make the case for an approach to public accountability steeped in democratic engagement as a key component of the rebuilding process.

The local elections in May 2024 will see the latest wave of mayors take their place in the bourgeoning English devolution landscape. There seems to be an emerging cross-party consensus that the metro mayor model is the way forward. And it is rolling out at pace. When York and North Yorkshire, the East Midland and the re-configured North East Mayoral Combined Authorities hold mayoral elections on 2nd May, 50 per cent of the English population, some 27.7 million people, will live in an area with a mayoral devolution deal.

Despite this dramatic rollout, English devolution is at best half finished. An unfinished map is a pressing problem, especially given that the easier deals have been struck, but is far from the only English devolution challenge facing the next government. It is striking that amidst the necessary debates about funding, geography, tiers, power and partnerships, the question of accountability has been neglected. As part of its plan to ‘power up Britain’, the Labour Party is committed to ‘turbocharging’ existing mayors through new powers, long-term integrated funding settlements and greater responsibilities for Combined Authorities. Eventually English devolution will be expanded to every town and city to complete the map. These proposals make it even more important that effective accountability arrangements are put in place.

Rebuilding local democracy

In a recent report as part of The Productivity Institute’s work on how institutions and governance can support regional economic growth, we address this omission. Accountability is the wiring that makes the whole system work – it determines who makes decisions and who bears the responsibility. Yet, with the roll out of English devolution, the accountability ecosystem has not kept pace. Old habits associated with Whitehall-driven ‘top-down’ accountability remain. This model has weakened local government over decades. And the Treasury-led ‘contract model’ of English devolution has too often clipped the wings of the new institutions it has created.

Our central argument is that accountability is conceived too narrowly. This in part reflects traditional ‘top-down’ accountability mechanisms designed to ensure accountability for public money to Parliament. This can be constraining for local actors and even counterproductive to the process of English devolution itself. We need to systematically reimagine accountability in ways that help to build strong and legitimate local and regional institutions. They need to look outward to the communities they serve and inward to scrutinise and evaluate their own performance, and not always look up to Whitehall. This is vital as we rebuild local economies, improve productivity and place civic pride at the heart of devolution.

A longer-term shift away from top-down accountability, and away from over-centralisation, cannot be achieved in isolation. Our model favours – and seeks to build on – a greater emphasis on bottom-up accountability through which mayors have begun to challenge central decisions that directly effect on their communities. But this is still ad hoc and currently it risks exacerbating disparities between regions, with the political clout of mayors like Andy Burnham and Andy Street dwarfing their lesser-known and less-connected counterparts. In the years to come, it will be crucial to build capacity in areas with local weaker policymaking infrastructure and to formalise central-local relations.

Scrutiny and democratic accountability

This broader shift to bottom-up accountability can only be achieved in a meaningful way if we first address inward and outward accountability. The former relates to the internal scrutiny processes of local institutions. This is how mayors, council leaders and scrutiny committees hold each other to account. Accusations of corruption against the Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, highlight the importance of a robust inward accountability arrangement. Michael Gove’s in-house review did not find any evidence to support this claim, but was damning in its assessment of accountability arrangements and governance failures at bodies chaired by the Tees Valley Mayor.

Perhaps of even greater importance is the need to promote outward accountability, through which local leaders are held to account by local people. This link is currently not working as it should. This is in part a reflection of long-standing low turnouts at local elections. But there are more recent and largely unreported trends at play too. The decline in local media, for example, is having a profound effect on the local accountability system. In the foreword to our report, Jen Williams noted the potent effect of simply having a reporter in a council meeting. With the decline of local media, we have lost a major source of local scrutiny. Our report highlights that this loss is also unevenly distributed across the country, with some communities – including those that are at the heart of the latest wave of devolution – living in ‘news deserts’ with inadequate local news scrutiny function.  

We support the rollout of English devolution and welcome the ambition of mayors and other actors who are determined to make the most of their new powers. But the model will be undermined – perhaps irreversibly – if local actors themselves do not get a grip on accountability. This involves understanding the benefits they will reap if they are publicly accountable. Otherwise, a top-down model will continue to be imposed by Whitehall. This would undermine much of the hard-won gains. Responsibility for facing-up to existing failings in inward and outward accountability is shared between central and local actors.

Our recommendations

Our report is intended to act as the catalyst for a long overdue conversation about revitalising local democracy. We want this, not a top-down system of performance oversight, to drive the English devolution agenda forwards. It should be rooted in local communities, answerable to local people, and responsive to the needs of local places. We make four proposals through which such a model could emerge.

First, we see a need to re-design the scrutiny function in Combined Authorities, creating directly elected scrutiny committees where there are more advanced devolution deals. We do not deny a role for central government here, but it should be focused on stipulating statutory minimum standards, not day-to-day meddling. Dedicated directly elected scrutiny committees, elected on four or five-year terms and with dedicated resources, would be a truly place-based alternative. This model, or something like it, is now vital as Level 4 and Trailblazer deals become embedded across the country. For areas in the early stages of devolution, where directly elected scrutiny committees is perhaps not suitable, we argue that more thought needs to go into the selection of committee members, and these members should have full buy-out from other duties. There is also no reason to assume they need all be local councillors. We envisage expanded research capacity and a public engagement ethos for places on all rungs of the devolution ladder.

Second, we think it is now necessary to publish an explicit menu of governance options for Mayoral Combined Authorities and set out a democratic process for choosing and changing models of leadership. On balance, we believe that all options should include a directly elected leader and all should include representation from local authorities. But different places will need different executive arrangements. Some innovations have been made in the most recent wave of devolution, with local leaders nominating extra members of the combined authority board, but further innovation is possible and will be necessary given that most places do not fit the Greater Manchester mould. The menu of options available should offer various ways of selecting combined authority boards and different roles for the mayor within them.  

Third, if we are serious about revitalising local democracy, it will be important to change the mayoral voting system back to the supplementary vote model. This move is widely understood to have been driven by short-term political expediency, not local accountability concerns. It is important, therefore, that the Electoral Commission oversees any future changes. The recent move towards first-past-the-post is a step backwards in terms of local accountability.

Fourth, at the heart of any attempt to decentralise power in England should be a clear strategy to revitalise local media as an anchor for public accountability and democratic life. There is no time to lose in taking forward and building on the recommendations of numerous reports advocating adequate, targeted and long-term funding mechanisms to facilitate and support the inevitable transformation of the sector. To this we add addressing existing geographical inequalities in local media access and quality.

Conclusion

The process of English devolution is taking place against a backdrop of financial crisis and dramatic decline in local government. Our report makes the case for an approach to public accountability steeped in democratic engagement as a key component of the rebuilding process. English devolution will remain unfinished if we do not embed accountability into everyday practices. Its long-term sustainability necessitates a rebalancing away from Whitehall-centric, top-down accountability mechanisms and toward an approach to bottom-up accountability that has local communities at the heart. Central government can support – but not supplant – this reorientation.

If, as now looks likely, Labour forms the next government, it will need to grasp the local accountability nettle. Otherwise, the latest wave of English devolution will be unable to support the realisation of national policy missions, unable to reconnect with disillusioned local people, and unlikely to survive in the long term. Labour has offered few concrete proposals to enhance the local accountability ecosystem. There are no quick fixes but Labour would do well to remember that English devolution is the route to both economic growth and placed-based community revival. From redesigning local planning to supporting preventive public health, Labour’s mission driven government cannot be delivered without effective and accountable local leadership.


Report: Rebuilding local democracy: the accountability challenge in English devolution

Image: “Manchester Town Hall” by Richard Hopkins. CC BY-NC 4.0 Deed | Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International


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.

Authors

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...

Dr Sam Warner

Dr Sam Warner

Dr Sam Warner, Researcher on Nuffield Foundation funded project ‘Public Expenditure Planning and Control in Complex Times: A Study of Whitehall Departments’ Relationship to the Treasury (1993-Present)’, University of Manchester.

Professor Michael Kenny

Inaugural Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy

Professor Kenny is the Inaugural  Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. Biography Before he arrived in Cambridge, Michael held positions at: Queen’s University, Belfast; the University of Sheffield,...

Professor Andy Westwood

Andy Westwood is Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester and a Director of the ESRC funded Productivity Institute. He has worked as an expert adviser to the...

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