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James Hickson and Jack Newman suggest that while English devolution enjoys broad support – as the Autumn Statement highlights – there are differing underlying perspectives on what English devolution is for that need to be addressed to avoid tensions emerging among proponents.

Wednesday’s Autumn Statement continued the incremental advance of English devolution, with new deals for East Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Lancashire and Cornwall, and further indications that deals will be deepened elsewhere. Given the hardening consensus in British politics about the need to devolve power in England, all these steps forward will be welcome. But, as English devolution advances, it becomes increasingly important to address questions that are asked with decreasing frequency: what is English devolution actually for, and where is it ultimately going?

The consensus about the need to decentralise often disguises tensions within the devolution project. There are many visions of devolution in England, with disagreements on scale, geographies, financing, political structures, voting systems, policy remits, and accountability processes. However, these disagreements often go unnoticed, as a coalition of devo-advocates focus on a shared critique of the centralised, short-termist, unaccountable, and incoherent status quo.

One key dividing line concerns whether devolution is considered from a ‘top-down’, Westminster perspective, or from the ‘bottom-up’ perspective of particular localities. There are underlying tensions between these different perspectives on devolution which inform different ideas about its purpose, implementation, and future direction. However, if we are to move from a reactive, ad hoc devolution process to one with a long-term vision and strategy, these tensions will need to be reconciled.

What motivates devolution?

Led by Westminster and Whitehall, devolution in England has typically focused on how regional institutions can help to tackle spatially-unequal growth, regenerate post-industrial areas, and realise macro-economic benefits. This positions devolution as a vehicle for delivering central government’s regional policies, and is likely to favour an approach that remains dynamic and flexible as priorities shift over time.

However, when viewed from the bottom-up, devolution is not just an implementation mechanism. It is, more fundamentally, about a new constitutional settlement that alters existing power dynamics. Devolution represents a potential counterweight to central government power, maintaining the interests of ‘peripheral’ areas, and ensuring that local views are reflected in decision-making. More ambitiously, it represents a way to develop new approaches to public policymaking that are place-based rather than place-blind, focused more on prevention than cures, built on citizen voice rather than distant bureaucracy, and strategically realising cross-cutting missions rather than working in traditional siloes.

How should we devolve?

These competing perspectives create very different prescriptions for the short, medium, and long-term development of the devolution agenda:

In the short-term

Given a history of constant reorganisation in England’s subnational political structures, any vision of devolution needs to consider how to build upon the existing foundations. Failure to do so risks leaving communities vulnerable to the socioeconomic consequences of continual policy churn, and could undermine the devolution project as a whole.

From a top-down perspective, this suggests our priority should be to embed and expand the model of city-regional devolution already extant across much of England. This will require government to further develop the powers, institutions, relationships and shared imaginaries within these territorial settlements.

A bottom-up perspective, meanwhile, may favour a localisation of the devolution process, with transfers of power to the neighbourhood level. A recent revival of interest in ideas of ‘double devolution’ and community empowerment, across both the Conservative and Labour parties, hint towards the emergence of more complex, multi-scalar trajectories.

In the medium-term

In the medium term, it will be necessary to develop an institutional infrastructure that can support England’s system of subnational government. This is about the all-important, but often ignored, ‘interface’ between different authorities and different tiers of government.

From a top-down perspective, emphasis may be placed on strengthening the economic levers that mayors can pull, as well as strengthening their relationships with central government, in order to deliver on key policy priorities. For example, this could be achieved by improving the mechanisms of cross-government working in Whitehall.

From a bottom-up perspective, however, there may be greater emphasis on the institutions necessary to mediate relations between localities and central government, and amplify local interests at the national-level. Mayoral Combined Authorities will need to interface between neighbourhoods, local authorities, and central government. The process by which metro-mayors currently liaise with the centre is ad hoc, informal, unequal, and lacking in transparency. A set of more formalised institutions will need to emerge as devolution develops.

In the long-term

Over the longer-term, it will be important to consider the durability of the devolved institutions that emerge in England.

From a top-down perspective, the piece-meal, deal-based approach to devolution ensures ongoing flexibility in the face of changing policy priorities. However, this leaves devolved institutions vulnerable to the fate of Regional Development Agencies, Local Enterprise Partnerships, metropolitan councils, many County Councils, the Greater London Council, and other institutions that were abolished overnight with little public contestation.

Considered, from a bottom-up perspective, it will be important to address this vulnerability through constitutional change. Building on the Sewell Convention that protects the remit of the devolved nations, the Supreme Court could emerge as a key arbiter between different tiers of government, ensuring that devolution is constitutionally entrenched as far as possible. However, significant work is needed to consider where England fits into the UK’s intergovernmental relations. At the heart of this are the twin challenges of funding and accountability.

A need for further debate

The Autumn Statement highlighted the consensus on progressing English devolution. But as we have seen there are divergent perspectives within the coalition of politicians, policymakers, and researchers who support it. These differences could lead to tensions as the agenda develops. Given this, it is important to get ahead of the game and actively explore differing visions and seek policy solutions that can meet shared goals to avoid the English devolution project falling victim to political conflict as increasingly disparate trajectories begin to emerge.

The next election is likely to represent something of a crossroads and presents an opportunity to consider the trajectory and sequencing of local and regional government in England. Perhaps most importantly, it is essential that this process is underpinned by open and robust debate about what devolution is actually for.

By Dr Jack Newman, Research Associate, The Productivity Institute, University of Manchester and Dr James Hickson, Research Associate, Heseltine Institute, University of Liverpool.

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