Published on 12 September 2023
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Reforming England’s national governance

Former Cabinet Office civil servant Philip Rycroft and former Communities Secretary John Denham set out the guidance that Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer might give to the Cabinet Secretary ahead of the next general elections to ensure that the stated ambitions of both of the main parties are realised in relation to English devolution and the effective delivery of English public policy.

General Elections are often followed by changes to the machinery of government, whether by an incumbent Prime Minister or a new administration. As part of the Review of the UK Constitution project which we have developed in partnership with the Institute for Government, former Cabinet Office civil servant Philip Rycroft and former Communities Secretary John Denham set out the guidance that either Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer might give to the Cabinet Secretary ahead of the next general election, in order to ensure that the stated ambitions of both of the main parties in relation to English devolution and the effective delivery of English public policy are realised.

‘Cabinet Secretary

The governance of England

If successful at the next election, it is my intention to radically reform the governance of England. This note sets out the rationale for so doing and outlines a new approach that I will seek to put in place. I will look to you for early advice on how to swiftly implement these changes.


Under current arrangements, the boundary between the governance of England and that of the UK is not clearly delineated. There is no departmental structure or system of ministerial accountability for the delivery of English domestic policy.

It is now clear that decades of centralised government of England by the UK state have failed to tackle deeply entrenched regional inequality in income, productivity and health. Despite some limited progress on devolution to combined authorities, more radical changes are needed to the state in England.

My government will wish to establish a coherent system of national governance of England to develop, implement and coordinate English domestic policy. There are five reasons for doing so:

  1. Current policy can be criticised for being poorly coordinated and not being sufficiently joined up. For example, responsibility for challenges like the effective reduction of re-offending or tackling obesity falls across numerous departments, some of which are England only, some England and Wales and some UK-wide. Ad hoc attempts to coordinate policy are ineffective.

  2. The budgets of UK departments are settled in bilateral negotiations with HM Treasury. The process precludes cross-departmental coordination of priorities and policy and does not create a national budget for English domestic policy.

  3. The fragmentation that results, and lack of clarity over the lines of financial accountability running to departmental Permanent Secretaries obstruct the coherent use of public money across different departments and inhibit the government’s ability to tackle complex issues. As a result, England’s current governance fails to make the best use of increasingly limited resources.

  4. Current structures work against effective devolution to English localities, including the flexible local pooling of public spending which is essential to reduce waste and inefficiency. The commitment to devolution varies considerably, and without good reason, from department to department. In practice, Treasury priorities and concerns limit the degree of devolution. A coherent system of central governance is key to the establishment of a genuinely devolved system of English governance which both main political parties have committed themselves to establishing.

  5. By delineating the distinction between England and UK issues, greater clarity on the scope and boundaries of English governance would help ensure that the relationship between English policy, the policy of the devolved nations and UK policy is much more clear and transparent.

New approach

The main features of the new approach will be as follows:

  • The rebranding of departments responsible for policy that are in effect entirely English-focused departments, viz Education; Health and Social Care; Levelling Up, Housing and Local Communities. (Residual functions with UK-wide implications such as international policy may still be managed from within these departments but in close collaboration with the devolved governments).

  • Identification of England-only responsibilities in other relevant departments (Department for Culture, Media and Sport; Home Office; Justice; Business and Trade; Science, Innovation and Technology; Transport; Work and Pensions; Energy Security and Net Zero; Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and reorganisation to ensure that these are exercised separately from UK (or Welsh) responsibilities.

  • The creation of an England Office to coordinate English domestic policy.  We intend to appoint a Secretary of State for England who will lead this office.

  • The Secretary of State for England will also sit alongside the other territorial offices in a Department for the Union, led by the Deputy Prime Minister.

  • The Secretary of State for England and the England Office will, inter-alia, provide representation for English interests in inter-governmental forums at a political and official level.

  • The establishment of an English Cabinet Committee, serviced by the England Office, and chaired by the Secretary of State for England, to affect the coordination of English domestic policy, with sub-committees formed as necessary to advance specific policy goals and initiatives.

  • Reform of the relationship between HM Treasury and government departments to ensure that there is a national budget for England and that the allocation of resources reflects priorities agreed across English departments.

  • The focus of accountability for local spending should be at a local level, rather than to central government, but will be bolstered by a new independent statutory audit authority with powers of intervention.


These changes will take place in the context of my wider ambitions for the devolution of power to the regions and localities of England. This in itself will drive an important shift in the relationship between Whitehall and regional/local government in England. Those departments responsible for policy that will be substantially devolved can expect to see many of their functions reduced in scale as power and resources are transferred to combined authorities. This creates an opportunity for a commensurate transfer of skills and capabilities from Whitehall to the regions of England. This should be built into your planning.


The organisation of select committees is a matter for the Parliamentary authorities, although I anticipate, and will certainly advocate, a committee structure that mirrors the changes we intend to make in the Executive.

Civil Service skills

I recognise that territorial management is somewhat alien to the Whitehall mindset. This needs to change, and quickly. To help oversee this programme, you should prioritise a programme of exchange with local government to rapidly upskill Whitehall in the understanding of how to effectively support the running of policy at a regional and local level.


I will look to you to drive a programme of change that will deliver these aspirations within six months of the next election’.

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.


Philip Rycroft

Philip Rycroft

Distinguished Honorary Researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and POLIS

Philip Rycroft worked in DExEU from March 2017 to March 2019, from October 2017 as its Permanent Secretary. He was responsible for leading the department in all its work on the...

John Denham

John is a Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations and Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Southampton. He was...

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