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Devolution, for and against: a tale of many cities

The debate on devolution has become increasingly remote from democratic participation. It needs to be opened up.

Rebecca Riley
29 June 2015
A Tale of Two Cities

Flickr/Peter Curbishley. Some rights reserved.

In his classic quote, Dickens describes a time of great change, and the conditions which were forcing that change: industrial and technological revolution; growth in knowledge and education; oppressed conditions of the working class and lack of hope within a time of great progress. In France this led to revolution, in Britain it led to eras of philanthropy, growth in a new middle class, and extensive governmental and democratic reform within a broader struggle by the establishment to retain power.

Today, we are faced with similar conditions: huge technological change; growing inequality; uneven distribution of power and funds – but the demand for change is coming from the cities and local leadership, not from an oppressed working class. This is creating a resurgence in the call for greater devolution, which has gathered speed since the end of the 20th century. So what are some of the arguments for and against devolution, and what will be the impact?

The ‘for’ argument

Currently Britain has a patchwork of devolved powers, with devolved nations having greater control over local issues. Here local government already makes decisions on local issues and this ensures discussions and decisions are made at the appropriate spatial level. However, unlike other countries such as Canada, this is a combined self- and shared- rule, with central government still able to legislate in the devolved areas (in practice they don’t without the consent of the devolved government). This does, however, lead to one of the greatest arguments for further devolution, as England does not have a similar structure and there is no opportunity for any self-rule. In demographic terms, areas such as Manchester and Wales have similar populations, but Wales has much greater control over its own destiny.

This concentration of effort can streamline the decision making process as decisions are made by the people who know the issues and can implement the solutions. National government is freed up to discuss issues of national importance and the ‘bigger picture’. There is also the potential that decision making at a local level is more effective, because of the greater belief in a common goal by decision makers as they focus on the enhancement of their own local area.

Currently the devolved nations don’t have their own tax raising powers and are still funded via a block grant from central government. Greater powers over taxation could lead to greater competition and ensure money raised in an area is reinvested in that area. However, this could also continue to widen the gap between rich and poor areas.

The ‘against’ argument

One of the arguments against devolution is cost. Devolving decision making from a central system, which has been doing this effectively for a long time, would increase the time taken for decisions and the associated structure changes needed to implement them. And there is a possibility of constitutional instability. What happens if the city or regional government clashes with national government? How does this get resolved? Who do we appeal to? National government?

Current devolution structures are not all the same. Scotland has control over policing, Northern Ireland doesn’t. In Wales some powers are devolved to the assembly not the government, so structures, powers and legislation varies, and therefore the devolved governments are not all equal. This uneven devolved decision making can also lead to a postcode lottery. One of the starkest examples of this is university tuition fees, where a student in England looks at debts in excess of £27k for fees, while Scotland has not introduced them.

Many also see devolution as the start of the break-up of the United Kingdom which would lead to a weakening of the national government, and its position in world politics.

But what do the people want?

The recent Scottish referendum which asked “Should Scotland be an independent country?” returned a no vote with a 10% majority, on an unprecedented 84% turnout. Other referendums on devolution-related topics have fared less well on voter engagement: the Greater London Authority was established with a 72% majority on a 34% turnout; and the last limited devolution referendum in England was in the North East in 2004, where it was rejected, by nearly 80% of voters on a 47% turnout.

The Scottish question was a single issue campaign which people understood and engaged with, unlike the devolution debate in general. This has become enmeshed in other policy areas such as health, education and planning, rather than being a single policy debate in its own right.  Generally, there is a lack of discussion with the electorate about what devolution could be trying to achieve:

- A democratic voice for local areas and the structures needed to do that consistently and fairly;
- Ensuring decision making is based on knowledge or the needs, requirements and opportunities of the local population;
- Ability to create competitive local economies, that play to strengths and tackle micro-economic issues;
- Streamlining government structures and preserving the whole country as an economic power;
- The need to develop transparent decision making structures, which everyone can engage with;
- A planning system which ensures strategic decisions are made which support local place development;
- Ensure access to services, such as education, health and social care meet consistent, national standards but respond to local requirements;
- Ensure a fair, place-based spending approach, which invests in places without widening the gap between them, and is balanced by social justice.

There are clear arguments for and against devolution, and whereas Dickens popularised political discussion in the nineteenth century by creating a narrative people related to (serialised in ‘cheap’ papers which the growing educated population and new middle classes could access) the majority of the electorate today is not engaged in these discussions. In the run up to the general election and beyond, there has been a lack of populist narrative about devolution and, as a result, change can be implemented without full democratic participation and an understanding of the impacts.

This article was originally published here, on the Knowledge Exchange blog.

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