Strengthening sub-national governance in England continues to be a political commitment, but proposed reforms fall short when it comes to deepening devolution. Mark Sandford identifies three types of change to the UK’s practice of governance that have been overlooked despite being a critical dimension of the current debate on English devolution.
After a long period of relative silence, 2022 saw devolution in England spring into life. Six new devolution deals were agreed in as many months. These new deals now inhabit the broader context of the government’s levelling up agenda and are situated within a devolution framework set out in the February 2022 White Paper. Devolving power has also rapidly become a priority for the Labour Party, with Keir Starmer committing to introduce a “Take Back Control Bill” in the first year of a Labour government.
Commentators have suggested that this signifies that English devolution is “back on the political agenda”, and that it is “an idea whose time has come”. The “trailblazer devolution deals” for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, announced at the March 2023 Budget, indicate that devolving power is still a live commitment within government. That is a rare phenomenon in UK politics: its novelty should not be underestimated. However, the detail of the 2022 deals suggest that the fundamental approach to devolution remains one of contractualism. Although in principle the deals are “negotiated”, the similarities between them far outweigh the differences. They are determined principally by government priorities, and mayoralties are convenient local partners for the government to pursue its preferred outcomes.
The contractual approach is visible in the changes to the “menu” of powers on offer in the 2022 deals. In all six, previous emphases on spatial planning, employment support, and apprenticeships have disappeared. Substantial space has instead been devoted to more current concerns such as digital connectivity, net zero, and brownfield housing, which barely featured in earlier deals.
Despite the fact that over 50 per cent of the English population will live in a devolved area from 2024, the character of English devolution remains one-dimensional. Devolution arrangements still resemble contracts, disbursing funds for specified purposes, with business plans, metrics, and financial reporting requirements. Deal documents still contain substantial quantities of verbal glad-handing, supporting or promising to consider local ideas and plans but without committing powers or funding to them.
The character of English devolution remains one-dimensional.
A common demand (from mayors and commentators) is the devolution of far broader powers in response. That can trigger discussions of local finance reform and fiscal devolution, together with disappointment when senior political figures tack away from discussions on such matters.
Although the range of legal powers and the quantity of funding available are important for the capacity of devolved bodies, three other types of change to the UK’s practice of governance are more significant in the longer term. These are: ensuring local leaders are the key players in local decision-making; giving devolved bodies regulatory power as well as spending powers; and ensuring accountability structures do not obstruct delivery.
These changes are distinct from providing “more powers”. Their effect would be to instigate a transformation of mayors and their devolved administrations from contractors into governments. That would help mayors to meet public expectations and enable them more easily to tackle the varied priorities of their electorates.
Clearing the ground for the key players
The current devolution deals do not provide local control over “housing”, “skills” or “transport” but over isolated segments of those policy fields. Most of the legal powers available to devolved authorities in England are concurrent – that is, other bodies, such as local authorities, or Homes England, hold the same power. This creates a crowded field of governance, in which other public bodies, accountable to ministers, are under no obligation to act in line with a mayor’s wishes.
These bodies’ priorities may not align with those of the elected mayor. Other public bodies may have significant spending power: for instance, the 2022 devolution deals offer sums in the order of £10-30 million per year to each local area for brownfield land remediation, but Homes England spends in the order of £1.5 billion per year across England on a range of projects.
Duplication of responsibilities of this kind can lead to “duplicated mandates”: where mayors are one actor amongst many. Some awareness of this issue is evident in the trailblazer deals, which contain occasional commitments to permitting local actors to lead on matters previously managed by other public bodies. Previous devolution deals shied away almost entirely from addressing this issue, but it is a significant obstacle to mayors’ capacity. If non-devolved bodies have different priorities from those of the mayoralty, this can lead to public bodies in the same locality pulling in different directions. A mayor’s convening role is unlikely to overcome this type of difficulty: it is likely to be most effective the more legal authority the mayor has.
The budgets and programmes managed by English mayors are mostly intended to deliver tangible outcomes: transport systems, further education courses, or economic development support. In contrast, English mayors have almost no regulatory powers. I use regulation here to mean “control exercised by a public agency over activities that are valued by a community”, through restrictions on behaviours or practices backed by legal or financial penalties. This type of power has occasionally been sought: for instance, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has sought powers to impose rent controls in London in recent years. But such powers have largely been absent from England’s devolution debate.
English mayors have almost no regulatory powers.
The Labour Party’s Commission on the UK’s Future, published in December 2022 and chaired by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has shown some awareness of this dimension of government. For instance, it suggests that mayoralties could set energy efficiency requirements on buildings, within the context of retrofitting in the service of net zero.
So far, the practice of “accountability” in English devolution has mostly amounted to contractual monitoring by central government. But there are many different purposes to “accountability”: these include monitoring organisational and financial propriety, scrutinising performance, enhancing data transparency, and the opportunity for public and political challenge of mayoral policy.
The Levelling Up White Paper devoted considerable space to enhancing accountability. Its proposals included strengthening local data to enable central government, local government, and members of the public to evaluate progress in localities. And the 2023 Budget committed to awarding “single departmental-style settlements” to Greater Manchester and the West Midlands at the next Spending Review.
The 2023 Budget promised a “single outcomes-based accountability framework” for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands – but the structure and details have yet to be worked through.
For now, the other devolved mayoralties will continue to face considerable central accountability requirements, including business cases for the use of all devolved powers; reporting against spend on each part of their budget, including five-yearly “gateway reviews” applying to their investment funds; and limits on how far they can move money between budgets. The 2023 Budget promised a “single outcomes-based accountability framework” for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands – proposed by the think-tank UK Onward, amongst others. But the structure and details of this approach have yet to be worked through.
The introduction of a single departmental-style settlement could facilitate a less prescriptive approach to accountability. It points towards a smaller range of key measures of progress, backed by reliable data, monitored by robust local bodies. Local capacity and legitimacy would be enhanced by a system that finds an appropriate location for distinct dimensions of accountability: performance measures, propriety, and the public and political challenge of overview and scrutiny.
Hood and Margetts identify the tools required by a government for effective policy via the acronym “NATO”: nodality (presence in a social or information network); authority (legal powers); treasure (sufficient finance); and organisation (material resources and staff). These four tools categorise four basic types of resource, which all governments possess to a greater or lesser degree. Much commentary drawing attention to shortcomings within the English devolution agenda has focused on the shortage of one or more of them available to the new devolved institutions.
However, I argue that these tools are necessary but not sufficient for strengthening sub-national governance in England. Sufficient finance and legal powers are indispensable for a local leader to act, but they will still struggle if a competitor organisation has equal or greater powers and money. If authority is confined to delivering discretionary services, the local leader will struggle to develop a comprehensive approach to governance. And the best organisational capacity can be stifled by upward accountability requirements within a highly centralised system.
Without addressing these three issues, contractualism in English devolution is likely to continue. Mayoralties will continue to focus on a collection of central programmes. Government will see their value as lying in their ability to spend money effectively, rather than to lead innovative decision-making on behalf of their electorates.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Image credit: Photo by Orry Verducci, via Unsplash.