Going into the General Election, all the mainstream political parties have apparently taken a devolutionary turn. But the main party’s pledges on devolution, as set out in their recently published manifestos, each has quite a different flavour.
Conservative plans for English devolution are set out exclusively in the context of rebalancing the economy. They focus on devolving “far-reaching powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors”.
Whilst the Conservatives can be congratulated for delivering more radical devolution to Greater Manchester than has been seen since the Scotland, Wales and London Acts of the early 2000s, their plans are perhaps the most constrained of any of the manifestos, even promising not to allow a reintroduction of regions.
Labour, by contrast, claims it will end a century of centralisation by giving more power to people. Alongside plans for a “Constitutional Convention” to reform Westminster, it promises an English Devolution Act, the detail of which comprises more control over economic development spending for city and county regions; multi-year budgets for councils; and control over health and high streets for communities.
Labour’s plans are more democratic in approach. But the detail amounts to significantly less than the grand-sounding English Devolution Act would imply – and, despite some big numbers, there is little sense of any genuine fiscal devolution beyond the retention of business rates growth.
The Liberal Democrats dedicate a whole section of their manifesto to devolution, democracy and citizenship. With the promise of a written constitution in two years, they promise to rejuvenate local government by reducing the powers of ministers to interfere, and by devolving financial responsibility to local authorities. They also promise “Devolution on Demand” to councils or groups of councils.
The latter represents possibly the most radical proposal of any party, with greater fiscal autonomy as per the Independent Review of Local Government Finance implying far-reaching possibilities. Like Labour, however, big promises could come unstuck as the devil will be in the detail.
Here's a graphic summarising the powers each party has promised to devolve:
The distance between the rhetoric and the detail of English devolution remains as wide as ever – and the track record of incoming governments delivering promises of decentralisation once in office leaves much to be desired.
That said, there is a much greater sense that the devolution genie is now out of the lamp. And pressure from the Scottish Nationalist Party – direct and indirect – will raise the stakes for an English devolution deal whatever the outcome of the general election. A systematic or consistent approach to decentralisation looks unlikely; but the chances of there being no further devolution looks impossible.
Any detailed plans for English devolution are likely to depend heavily on the nature of any negotiations in the event of a hung parliament; and the subject will be subservient to any agreement about the public finances and “the English question”. The Spending Review represents a significant opportunity to review central-local relations, rather than simply slice-off more wedges of local spending. Meanwhile, English devolution could do more to resolve the English constitutional anxieties than any parliamentary arrangements will.
Sadly, in the rush to form a government of some kind, both opportunities are likely to be missed – unless of course negotiating parties have the foresight to include a local government leader on their team.
For English devolution really to take root, though, three conditions still need to align:
1) The need for a long-term, cross-government approach.
To date, all of the political parties seem prepared to concede the need to devolve specific functions or pots of funding currently controlled from the centre.
However, this type of piecemeal approach facilitates ministerial intransigence, and prevents local agencies from maximising the benefits of devolved powers and funding. Following the examples of France and Japan, a new government should take a far more systematic, cross-government approach by laying the foundations for a decentralisation decade.
2) A better understanding of the relationship between economic development and public service reform supported by genuine fiscal devolution.
In simple terms, creating good quality jobs relieves pressure on public services and derives benefits to the Exchequer. Evidence shows that both require much greater devolution of funding, which would better be retained locally to incentivise (and reinvest in) improvement. The real benefits of devolution can only be achieved by a more wholesale approach, where local or combined authorities can pool funds to maximise joint-working and raise funds to drive economic growth in tandem with service improvement and innovation.
3) Bottom-up demands for democratic devolution.
Scottish devolution has been driven by its people. Even though England has as yet not had a similarly catalytic moment as the Scottish referendum with which to find its voice, similar sentiments of discontent can be found in the growing support for smaller parties.
Discontent with the Westminster elite could quickly translate into the kind of enthusiasm for local political expression that seems to have benefited the SNP. The mainstream parties in England would ignore such a force at their peril.
Ed Cox is director of IPPR North and author of “Decentralisation Decade”.
IPPR North has today published Devolution Dashboard – an analysis of the manifesto commitments of all the major parties for devolution in England.