The unanswered tension between central decision-making and devolved power
Central government talks about giving up power to local areas but seems hesitant to truly commit to devolution, says Kate Davies.
Central government recognises the value of local decision making but has never fully embraced devolution.
There are signs that this is changing. The recent Levelling Up white paper, if taken at face value, makes devolution a key part of the domestic agenda in England. One of its five pillars is a commitment to 'empower decision‑makers in local areas' and it sets a 'mission' that 'by 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal'.
So is the government now truly committed to devolution?
The bumpy road to devolution
There is a long history of power being held within Whitehall, and the UK has been, and remains, one of the most centralised countries in the OECD.
Over the last few decades, the balance between central and local government has waxed and waned. In the late 1990s, governance in Scotland and Wales was passed to devolved administrations. In the 2000s, there was an unsuccessful attempt to devolve power in England, including when a proposed North East Assembly was rejected by voters. In the 2010s, devolution deals were launched in areas including Greater Manchester, and which passed some executive, spending and strategic powers to local places.
A cautious approach from central government
Devolving power to local areas, by its very nature, means that central government loses some of the power it holds. Government has been hesitant to make this concession.
One example is Whitehall’s response to the Covid crisis, where it was quick to consolidate powers at the centre. As the Institute for Government has noted the 'instinct to centralise' and that 'there are several areas where the UK’s response to the pandemic could have been strengthened if local government had played a more significant role'.
A second example is how the government has worked with local authorities in effort to ‘level up’. We have only to look at the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund. This fund aims to enable local authorities to make significant changes to their localities and 'empower communities'. However, central government has placed itself as the only meaningful decision-maker, as it reviews the fund applications and decides which projects can go ahead.
A third example is around the Health and Care Bill currently moving through the House of Lords. This aims to join up care and incentivise collaboration between decision makers at a system, place and neighbourhood level. Controversially, the draft of the bill suggests extensive new powers to the Secretary of State to intervene in local systems.
The need for action
Central government rhetoric and policy is in favour of devolving power, but in practice, progress towards devolution has been patchy and slow.
Perhaps this is because devolution represents a challenge to the established order. Changing the culture and norms of any organisation is a difficult thing to do, and this is no different for central government.
Whatever the reason, central government needs to be decisive about devolving power if it wants to truly encourage place-based decision making and capitalise on the expertise of local leaders.
Learn more about Mutual Ventures' work to support local places here.