"Coming out of a pandemic, further devolution and regional expertise would be a sensible policy to advocate for."
The call for further devolution and constitutional reform has been gaining momentum in recent years, not only in terms of giving more powers to the already established devolved assemblies; but in creating stronger regional representation and devolving more powers to combined authorities within England.
It is interesting to trace the history of the call for devolution. We can, surprisingly perhaps, find numerous occasions where devolution has been considered or advocated for. English devolution was proposed in 1912 by Winston Churchill who had proposed that the English government should be split amongst regional parliaments in order to create a federal system of government. Another such moment has been the Redcliffe-Maud Report in 1969, which proposed eight devolved assemblies in England.
In more modern times, new positions have been created such as metro mayors, who are directly elected and lead a combined authority; demonstrating a shift towards a culture of devolving power, even if it is incremental and does not hold the same weight or have the same resources as the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This comes almost a decade after the abolishment of the Regional Development Agencies between 2008 and 2010 which were set up to foster economic growth.
Past policies have been so minutely incremental in handing out power, whether that be to councils or to city mayors, that whilst all metro mayors are given new powers in regards to skills, housing and transport; their powers are limited in other areas. Often they are confined to the pre-existing devolution deals that have been struck up by each authority. This creates an imbalance of power and of influence. For example, Greater Manchester has agreed devolution of more powers over criminal justice and health and social care that six out of the nine authorities do not have.
Metro mayors have been shown to have some soft power, however the poor election turnouts (32.33% in the 2019 North of Tyne; 21.3% in the 2017 Tees Valley; 26.7% of the West Midlands) suggest a lack of a firm mandate, but also interest by the local people to participate; usually due to a lack of awareness of the elections and the powers that these authorities have. Coming out of a pandemic, further devolution and regional expertise would be a sensible policy to advocate for.
Evidently, more needs to be done to highlight the devolution that is already in place. Much of the problems that local and regional areas face such as social care and housing are still viewed in a light that places a lot of emphasis on Westminster rather than on local authorities. To an extent - that is fair.
However, Westminster has been slashing council budgets - according to the LGA, councils will have lost almost 60p in the £1 from the central government for local services in the decade to 2020 – and it is very much the same for metro mayors who must work within the tight budgets of their capital investment funds (which are between £450 million and £1.095 billion) which is paid in yearly instalments over three decades which are to be used for their specific devolved powers over transport, housing, and development projects. Therefore, the amount of money that each combined authority is given is a huge constraint when tackling regional issues.
The Guardian has stated that a Labour report, ‘Remaking the British State’, proposes a “significant devolution of policymaking and financial powers to English regions and councils, including borrowing”. This would mean that councils and regional authorities would have the resources to explore and pursue larger and more ambitious projects to tackle the regional, specific and national issues such as the environment.
There is no one correct way that further devolution should appear as. For example, Labour’s newly unveiled plan to give councils the powers to “seize the initiative and ensure premises are used either for shopping, small businesses or “other enterprises” demonstrates that there are many ways in which more power can be placed with local authorities such as councils. Creating a structure of hierarchy, or a wider scope with internal devolution, is just one example. On a broader scale, having elected members from each region in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to the House of Lords; to create a federal senate would also be a way of having further local influence and focus when it comes to the scrutiny of government bills.
Having regional assemblies with a more significant devolution regarding policymaking and financial powers would further shift the focus from Westminster and place more authority to execute decisions by the people who live in and are elected from that area. It also has the potential to create a more coherent aim for each region to hold more power and weight than the current system of combined authorities, with metro mayors who are limited in their devolved powers and the funding that they receive.
There is much that is currently being discussed regarding regional inequality; especially now in terms of the impact of Covid. Dan Jarvis who is both an MP and Mayor of the Sheffield City Region has recently said that English regions need devolution that is akin to the systems in place in Wales and Scotland; in order to solve regional inequality within the UK. It is evident that Westminster blanket policies are not tailored to fit local specificities, but the ways in which we can create further regional representation and devolution are varied and plentiful.
Vicky Gill's interest in politics grew after participating in the UK branch of the European Youth Parliament in 2018.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica Limited as a company.