What's next for devolution in England?

8 August 2017


On 29 June, CSaP hosted a panel discussion on devolution in England, as part of its one day annual conference at the Royal Society in London.

Jo Casebourne, Director of Development in the Institute for Government, opened the discussion with a fascinating talk on English devolution and some of the political developments pertinent to that agenda both at national levels and also within some of the relevant authorities. A summary of her talk is given below.

To hear the session in full, including talks from Andrew Lightfoot and Glenn Woodcock, please click on the image below.

Why does it matter that we should have devolution in England?

In her talk, Jo argued that England had long been dominated both politically and economically by London. Both central government and local areas have been debating for some time that we need to devolve more powers, particularly to cities and perhaps to other parts of the country to stimulate local growth and to join up local public services.

If you buy into the premise that it matters, how far have we actually got with English devolution?

The current drive for devolution began three years ago in the summer of 2014 when George Osbourne first talked about the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. And so the process of devolution deal making began, starting with Greater Manchester later that year, and then – prior to the May 2015 general election – other places such as Sheffield and West Yorkshire.

The process was ramped up in the summer of 2015 after the Conservative government was elected and a new more structured process was announced which saw the Treasury receive a further 38 bids. New deals were announced between October 2015 and the budget in March 2016, in areas such as the North East & Tees Valley, West Midlands, East Anglia, West of England, Greater Lincolnshire, and the Liverpool City Region.

This pre-EU referendum deals process had taken us further than ever before in terms of devolving powers in England, partly because of the backing of political leaders. The involvement of Treasury was also very important in ensuring that deals were done and there was agreement on which powers should be devolved.

What has happened to English devolution over the past year?

Following the EU referendum and a change of Prime Minister, it was hard to tell over last summer what was happening to the devolution deals process, and whether or not English devolution remained a priority. There were conflicting messages over that summer about Theresa May’s commitment to this model of deal making as a way of doing devolution. Losing the strong leadership of George Osbourne had put the devolution agenda as it was at risk, and the agenda didn’t really seem to have the same backing of the new Chancellor, Philip Hammond. Subsequently, previously agreed deals in Sheffied, East Anglia, the North-East and Greater Lincolnshire fell apart.

However, there have been some positive signs, such as the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ remaining as a title, and devolution was addressed in the Industrial Strategy green paper this year, and the Housing white paper in February.

The Industrial Strategy green paper set out the importance of the role of mayors in infrastructure decision making. The Housing white paper stated that metro mayors could help government understand local circumstances and develop new strategies.

The waning of interest in English devolution becomes evident when the 2017 budget is compared with that in 2016. This year, there were only two mentions of English Devolution compared to 14 mentions last year. In May, we saw that as a result of devolution deals that had not fallen over, six new metro mayors were elected. A third of the English population now has a directly elected metropolitan mayor. These new mayors have a range of powers over areas such as transport, the further education system, business support, support to get people back to work, and in the case of Greater Manchester, powers in health and social care.

What’s next for English devolution?

We need to wait and see how successful new mayors will be at working with other political leaders to get the best for their areas. A few weeks after the surprise general election result, and the start of a hung parliament, it seemed increasingly unlikely that this government would prioritise English devolution.

The government committed to delivering an industrial strategy in the Queen’s speech and it remains to be seen the role that devolution will play in that. The consultation on the Housing white paper closed in May during purdah, and there was no detail in the Queen’s speech on what further powers might be devolved in terms of housing.

The realities of a minority government, where Theresa May will have to pick which battles to fight, will mean rolling back many of the commitments in the Conservative manifesto to a much narrower programme for government, and one which probably won’t have devolution as its focus. That was confirmed in part when English devolution failed to appear in any form in the Queen’s speech.

For the time being, central government may be about to carry on with business as usual so working very closely with the new set of powerful new mayors, but perhaps not fundamentally reshaping the way that England is governed beyond those mayors.

In response to Jo's talk, Andrew Lightfoot (Greater Manchester Combined Authority) and Glenn Woodcock (Exeter City Futures) each spoke from their own experience of devolution and innovation at city level in England.

To hear the talks of other sessions, please visit the annual conference page.

This month, Jo Casebourne will start in her new role as Chief Executive at the Early Intervention Foundation.

Banner image from Paolo Magari on Flickr

Dr Jo Casebourne