Devolution On Demand — how flexible devolution could be the best way for England

Photo: BBC
Photo: BBC

Did you know? The United Kingdom is incredibly unbalanced. Reforms over the past 20 years have given devolved areas (like Scotland, Wales and London) greater political and economic clout. The rest of Britain – mainly areas in the undevolved England, from Cornwall to Cumbria; Nottingham to Manchester; Newcastle to Norfolk – are left with comparatively little political and economic infrastructure.

In these undevolved areas, a greater sense of Englishness has grown in those 20 years. While sometimes nationalistic and occasionally xenophobic, a greater sense of an English identity is a reality and one we should all be aware of, and even embrace. Greater self-determination for England and its regions – within the United Kingdom but no longer tethered to the fortunes of the capital and its financial sector – is paramount to a truly balanced UK. In short, the political, economic and philosophical necessity for English devolution is phenomenal.

The current government’s resolution to this conundrum is the “Northern Powerhouse” concept, which intends to build a new economic hub in the North of England, centring on Manchester and Leeds. While on the face of it this programme would seem a splendid way to rebalance the UK politically and economically, there are a couple of (massive) problems with it. Brace yourself.


Make a Northern Powerhouse a home

First is the obvious problem that politicians tend to talk a lot about the Northern Powerhouse but rarely act on their words. In the run up to the 2015 General Election, Chancellor George Osborne announced the implementation of “HS3,” a high-speed railway from Manchester to Leeds and the backbone of the Northern Powerhouse idea. Within a couple of weeks of the Conservatives winning the election, the idea of HS3 had been scrapped. A big blow to the Northern Powerhouse if there ever was one.

However, perhaps even more troubling is the lack of accountability in the decisions that actually are being implemented. One “Northern Powerhouse” policy that is being implemented is granting some city-based local councils (who will come to form a “combined authority”) more powers, as long as they institute a directly-elected mayor. This “city regions” approach to devolution is being implemented across England, including in Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds and Bradford.

The thing about this approach to devolution is that it is unaccountable, and doesn’t really solve the political alienation a lot of people feel. Rather than having their decisions taken by distant political elites in London, they are being made by invisible local councillors, who citizens voted for to sort out traffic problems and bin collection, not healthcare and industry. The way the decisions have been taken on the matter are indicative: the citizens of these so-called city regions have not been consulted about their establishment; this is just an elite at a national level handing power to elites at a local/regional level. It’s unaccountable and undemocratic.



A far better solution to the currently politically unbalanced UK would be to do the exact opposite of what Osborne has proposed. Rather than giving devolved powers to local elites whether the citizens of those areas want them or not, why not establish a mechanism through which those citizens can demand (and take steps to put into practice) devolution from Westminster?

In a 2014 paper for The Federal Trust and Unlock Democracy, Andrew Blick suggests that England should follow a similar system to that implemented in Spain since 1978, where regions can request from the government new devolved powers for their area. So, if Greater Manchester decided it wanted devolved powers from Westminster, it could request it and have the question put to a referendum in the area. If there was a “yes” vote for devolved powers, Greater Manchester could receive those powers without affecting any other region in the area. The size of the area that powers are devolved to could be bigger or smaller than Greater Manchester – it could be the whole North-West of England, the old county of Lancashire or just a constituent member of Greater Manchester like Wigan or Bolton.

Devolution would work at different paces for different areas depending on their citizens’ appetites for the process; the specific region that powers are devolved to would match the area the citizens most identified with rather than administrative ease or the whim of an elite. This flexible approach would not only give local citizens the controls to build their economies without Westminster interference or neglect, it would be wholly democratic because it would be supported by the majority of their area. Campaign groups in favour of a Northern government, a Cornish assembly or devolved city regions could all put their case to their local electorate, and if given the affirmative response could make a seamless transition to devolved regional rule.

Devolution is a way to give more people control over their economy and democracy, taking decisions which affect them and their community. But it should not be foisted upon them if they do not want it, and decisions should certainly not be transferred from one elite to another as a proxy for devolution. A flexible approach which recognises that devolution is a process and not an end point would be a way to keep regional democracy democratic and accountable as well as (hopefully) profitable. What a good idea.

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Jon Holiday

Jon commentates on the ways culture and politics interact.

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