In a review of the UK constitution, Michael Kenny and Jack Newman call for commitments to English devolution by 2030, and a new Office for England and council of metro mayors to help overcome challenges posed by England’s governance.
This report explores how England, the largest and most populated territory within the UK, is governed. It makes the case for more systematic attention to be paid to the increasingly incoherent and dysfunctional character of its administration, an argument that rests upon six main foundations:
- The position of England in the UK and the consequences of serial changes to its subnational governance are major issues that have been neglected by policymakers.
- Basic questions about the character and future of subnational devolution in England remain unanswered.
- The system and culture of central government have been too slow to adapt to the changing structures of subnational administration.
- The development of a more stable and comprehensive model of English devolution – an ambition that both main British political parties share – requires significant reforms at the heart of British government.
- England’s misaligned administrative boundaries cause confusion and uncertainty, and contribute to a lack of accountability.
- There is a growing, concerning democratic deficit in England.
Three overriding problems in current administrative arrangements become particularly apparent – undue centralisation, incoherence, and a lack of democratic accountability. All three are linked to the ever-changing character of administrative arrangements in England, as these have been repeatedly altered and further complicated in the last few decades.
If English devolution is to be given the chance to bed in and progress over the coming years, new structures in Whitehall are needed to oversee and protect the devolution process. Otherwise, there is likely to be a continuation of the cycle in which new subnational institutions are created, only to be abolished or reorganised a decade later, leaving little opportunity for English devolution to take root. We recommend:
- The establishment of a new independent commission that would be tasked with examining in depth how England is currently governed.
- A commitment from both parties to complete the devolution map by 2030.
- The introduction of an English Governance Act, which would gather together and codify the existing legislation on England’s local and regional government structures.
- The establishment of an English Devolution Council, a body that would represent local government in the heart of the UK government.
- The creation of an England Office within the structures of central government and an England-focused cabinet committee.
We believe that these changes would, if accepted by politicians across party lines, act as a bulwark against instability and create the conditions in which a more transparent and coherent system of governance could be rebuilt. To unlock the potential benefits of creating a layer of devolved government right across England, we suggest, those at the centre need to start by getting their own house in order.