Written evidence from The Local Government Association[1] (EDE 12)


Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

The Evolution of Devolution: English Devolution






  1. Summary


1.1.               The Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper presents a unique opportunity to reset our communities’ relationship with the Government and, in doing so, level up the inequalities faced by our communities.


1.2.               Over the last decade England has taken steps towards greater decentralisation with a series of devolution deals. The principle and process of placing greater power and resources in the hands of locally elected leaders has been tested and we are encouraged by the Government’s appetite for further reform.


1.3.               In recent months the LGA has begun to refresh and strengthen our policy position on devolution, built around four elements: establishing an English devolution baseline; expanding the focus of devolution beyond economic growth to encompass wider priorities for public service reform; making the case for greater fiscal devolution; and, asserting the constitutional position of English councils within the context of a strengthened United Kingdom. We feel the time has come to unleash the potential of councils and communities right across the country. We therefore welcome the Committee’s inquiry and are pleased to submit this written evidence.


1.4.               There are three key points we would like to draw out of our response. First, there is value in exploring the mechanisms by which a broad basket of powers might to be devolved to councils everywhere without the requirement for structural reform: using either the reserve powers model or through a non-statutory ‘devolution baseline’.


1.5.               Second, in working towards greater devolution national government must become much more sensitive to the needs of place, focusing on local co-production and providing a transparent list of the powers and resources different departments are prepared to devolve.


1.6.               Thirdly, the Government should be bold and trust councils to do what they do best and deliver for their communities. Resident satisfaction polling conducted in June 2020 for the LGA showed that that 71 per cent of residents trust their council and that the vast majority (75 per cent) are satisfied with the way their local council runs things in their area.

  1. Should there be comprehensive reform of the English devolution and local government system?


2.1.               The vote to leave the European Union has underlined the need for a meaningful debate on the extent to which councils and combined authorities in England have the powers and resources they need to better connect people to future prosperity and to make decisions that respond to the opportunities and challenges of place.


2.2.               Over the last 20 years devolution to London and a handful of predominantly northern city regions has allowed those able to forge ahead to do so. In turn they have laid the foundations of a new form of democratically accountable sub-national governance. Just as the door must now be opened for others to do the same, so too must the UK’s written and unwritten constitution take proper account of England’s ‘devolution evolution’ and the democratic legitimacy of council leaders.


2.3.               The national crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the contribution councils can make if they are given the powers and resources to do so. Much store has been placed in the Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper. Whether this can deliver on the Government’s commitment to full devolution across England remains uncertain, with the paper subject to continued delay.


2.4.               Since the White Paper was announced in December 2019 there has been significant discussion around the relationship between devolution and local government reform. However, while there may be a case to be made for the structural or non-structural reform of councils at a local level there is little serious debate between those for and against unitarization as to whether this process represents a transfer of power and resources from national government to local councils. To be clear, the reform of council structures is not the same as devolution and the recent tendency by national government to link the two issues has created a significant degree of confusion


2.5.               Within this context comprehensive reform must therefore mean more than simply tidying up administrative boundaries and tweaking the conditions by which devolution deals are granted. The distinct challenges and opportunities of people and place should be brought centre stage and Government’s approach to devolution and local government should be re-tooled to ensure that locally elected leaders are given the powers and resources they need to drive better outcomes for and in partnership with their communities.


2.6.               Reform on this scale needs a strong commitment right at the heart of national government. It cannot simply be left to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and negotiated on a case by case basis across Whitehall with other Departments which can be resistant to change. Instead, it must proceed on the basis of genuine collaboration with local leaders who know their people and places best and facilitated by an open and honest conversation about council capacity and the financial resources required to deliver.

  1. What aims and principles should underpin devolution in England?


3.1.               The central aim of devolution in England should be to transfer the widest possible level of powers and resources to local government. Councils and their communities should sit upfront with national government, setting the destination and describing the devolved powers they need to reach it. This process should be underpinned by the following five principles:


3.1.1.      First, devolution deals should be co-produced with local leaders: there should be no one-size-fits all approach on governance, no standardised deals crafted in Whitehall and those areas able go furthest, fastest should be able to do so.


3.1.2.      Second, devolution deals should leave nothing off the table: councils should be able to access the widest possible set of powers including fiscal devolution and the ability to ‘defragment’ national agencies at a local level to tackle issues such as skills and unemployment.


3.1.3.      Third, devolution must be backed by adequate resources: any newly devolved powers and responsibilities must be fully funded and sit alongside a long-term sustainable funding settlement for local government.


3.1.4.      Fourth, individual devolution deals must form part of a new push towards localisation: Whitehall must become more joined up in working with places, powers returning from the EU such as freedoms and flexibility on state aid and procurement should be passed down to the local level, and grants and funding from national government should be consolidated around local areas and their needs.


3.1.5.      Fifth, English councils must have a stronger voice on the national stage. A commitment to replicating the functions of the EU Committee of the Regions must be delivered, and arrangements such as EU Exit delivery board and ministerial working groups should form the basis of a new partnership approach which works for all.


  1. Should devolution in England use the reserved powers to bring it in line with devolution in the rest of the UK?


4.1.               In 2018 the LGA called for an English Devolution Bill to enhance the devolved powers of all areas of England – with options for such devolved powers to at least the level of the Scottish Government.


4.2.               In this submission we argue for a new English Devolution Baseline, setting out what we believe should be devolved to councils as part of a locally customisable offer available to local areas.


4.3.               Devolution to Scotland is protected, with the Scotland Act requiring both agreement of the UK Parliament and Scottish Parliament in order to be repealed. A comparable settlement for English local government could provide a mechanism to lock in devolution and strengthen the independence of councils across the country.


4.4.               However, in line with both the realities of Parliamentary sovereignty and the principles set out above, such a move would need to be approached carefully and with the utmost transparency. Creating a formal list of reserved powers would represent a sea change in national policy at odds with experience of English devolution over the last decade. It may be an approach that has merit, but ultimately councils are likely to be guided by the extent to which the path towards devolution taken by Government provides them with the flexibility and freedom to better deliver local outcomes.


  1. To what extent should there be consistency in devolved and local governance within England, and to what extent is asymmetry necessary?


5.1.               The previous wave of devolution undertaken between 2014 and 2017 largely ran to a standardised model: areas were invited to bid for the chance to strike a devolution deal; the government pursued those that warranted the greatest support; and, with the notable exception of Cornwall, those areas that were successful were required to establish a mayoral combined authority in order to complete the deal.


5.2.               Consequently, one of the key fault lines surrounding this process was to be found on the issue of governance. Many non-metropolitan areas were unconvinced of the need to establish a mayoral combined authority in order to access greater powers and resources. Conversely, many of those areas that had gone through the process of setting up a mayoral combined authority were more sympathetic to the Government’s concerns regarding accountability and standardisation.


5.3.               A mayoral combined authority is an important local institution. It has staff, it has a legal identity, it has resources and it exercises powers. It provides a robust platform for cross-administrative collaboration. It is not dependent on devolution and, likewise, there is nothing in law to prevent devolution to a non-combined authority.


5.4.               It is likely that there will be more mayoral combined authorities and that they will seek to secure a level of power comparable to the nine already established. It is also likely that there will be some areas that are unlikely to support a mayoral combined authority and yet will still need to be able to access powers and resources to improve outcomes for their communities and businesses. This is particularly important given the current national context and the importance of rebuilding in the future.


5.5.               It cannot be right that the ‘solution’ for those areas unwilling or unable to match the Government’s preference for devolved governance is either top-down reorganisation or being consigned to the ‘devolution slow lane’. As a means of ‘squaring the circle the LGA is creating an alternative model putting together a package of powers and responsibilities that might be made available to every council: an English devolution baseline.


5.6.               Those areas that wish to become mayoral combined authorities will still be able to address issues and wield power jointly on a greater scale. There may also be some functions, such that those that exist in relation to strategic infrastructure or acute health commissioning that only make sense on a larger economic or population footprint. However, not every function currently held by a combined authority or sought by councils fits this description and so not every authority should be encouraged to establish a combined authority simply to access the tools needed to better deliver for their residents.


5.7.               Similarly, on the question of local governance, while there are fundamental principles of democratic accountability and financial transparency that underpin councils across the country, decisions relating to the structures by which services are delivered are a matter best left to local leaders.


5.8.               Fundamentally, what matters most to communities are the outcomes they experience within the places they live and work. While it might be safely argued that most people wish to live in communities that are thriving, sustainable and connected, the reality is that different places have different challenges and opportunities and will need to pursue different routes to achieve their ambitions.


5.9.               As such, we would argue that while devolution and local governance should be underpinned by a consistent set of principles and a consistent focus on high quality services, there will continue to be a degree of asymmetry in the powers and resources that local areas need and the local structures that wield this power. Arguably the challenge over the last decade has been that Government has focused on structural uniformity to the detriment of public service experience.


  1. What is the purpose of current the “devolution” deals and mechanisms? Are these purposes being achieved?


6.1.               A new approach to policy responsibility in England is required to match the place leadership of councils and further support devolution to locally elected leaders. The process of devolution in the last decade has been underpinned by a series of transactional deals, where local areas have secured licenced exemptions from national policy in areas such as housing, transport and skills.


6.2.               Devolution has been driven by a process that brings a range of local partners together, who then agree to act for central Government to deliver enhanced outcomes in return for increased powers and funding. In London, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and elsewhere local leaders have demonstrated the success of this approach. They have also begun to test the limits of a policy based around the piecemeal transfer of funding and functional responsibilities. Examples of successes include:


6.2.1.      The ‘Our Pass’ scheme launched by Greater Manchester Combined Authority in September 2019 which provides 16 to 18-year-olds in Greater Manchester with free bus travel.

6.2.2.      The establishment of the first Mayoral Development Corporation outside of London in the Tees Valley, with a vision for the site to create 20,000 jobs and add £1 billion per year into the local economy over 25 years.

6.2.3.      The recently published Greater Manchester Population Health Plan update which shows significant health benefits for local residents following the devolution of health and social care. This includes a substantial increase in school readiness and a smoking prevalence rate falling twice as fast as the national average.

6.2.4.      Significant benefits from devolution in Cornwall, with over 11,000 businesses accessing business support programmes and the launch of an investment fund to fill a market gap that local businesses have identified.


6.3.               Drawing on devolution settlements of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, areas in England should be able to agree with Westminster a new territorial settlement for their communities. The process described above needs to be turned ‘right side up’, with local leaders bringing central government departments and agencies together to deliver locally determined and accountable outcomes for residents and businesses.


6.4.               In principle, this would provide a route for local institutions to access a wider range of powers and responsibilities for matters such as health, education, employment, social policy, economic and social cohesion, transport, energy and climate change.


6.5.               In practice, this would provide a new framework within which local areas could set local priorities and hold national providers of public services and Whitehall departments to account for delivery. This would provide people with a clearer sense of local governance and accountability, underpinned by policy makers that put local place first.


6.6.               For example, this could include a fully integrated and locally developed housing policy, with the power to set city-wide standards on homelessness, design and rents levels free from national prescription. It could also enable combined authorities to provide strategic leadership over the planning and delivery of transport infrastructure with a reformed and place-led Highways England commissioned to deliver by local leaders. And, pressingly, it could provide councils across the country with the power to bring funding and decision-making for flood risk management under the control of local leaders, commissioning the Environment Agency to support the delivery of locally developed strategies.





  1. How should decisions on English devolution be agreed?


7.1.               In line with the principles and processes set out above, central government should convene a cross-Whitehall platform to pursue the widest possible devolution of powers and resources to local councils. This should have two aspects; those powers and resources that might be made available to all councils and those that might be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.


7.2.               In order to support agreement, the Government should publish a framework setting out those powers and resources that it will devolve to any area that requests them and set out the principles by which more ambitious devolution deals might be unlocked. MHCLG could then proceed with local discussions backed by a clear understanding of what other Departments are willing and able to devolve.


  1. How should the interests of different parts or regions of England be better represented to central government and in intergovernmental arrangements as well as in Parliament?


8.1.               It is time to bring forward and implement proposals to replicate the functions of the Committee of the Regions within the UK post-transition. This would give local government a national platform to help shape new legislation. UK local government had a formal advisory role in the EU law and policy-making process through its membership of the EU Committee of the Regions (CoR). Involving local government in this way ensured that EU laws were improved by the experience of those at the front line of delivery.


8.2.               The voice of UK local government within the European Union has strengthened policy and given communities a vital opportunity to influence decisions that affect their daily lives. This cannot be lost following EU Exit and would fully complement the range of proposals set out in the rest of this submission.


  1. Is there a public demand for such structures/measures? On what basis should the form, geography and extent of devolved regions or areas be determined, and what should be the role of culture and identity?


9.1.               While there has long been a debate regarding the public’s appetite for a greater transfer of powers to councils, there has been a consistent argument that local government is more trusted and better able to deliver than national government.


9.2.               Polling conducted in June 2020 showed that that 71 per cent of residents trust their council and that the vast majority (75 per cent) are satisfied with the way their local council runs things in their area.


9.3.               Ultimately, people care about good quality services in their areas and less about the structures that deliver these services. Whilst local identity rarely fits neatly with the administrative architecture of England, it is difficult to see how this might be comfortably accommodated within the Government’s historic approach on these matters – to draw new lines on an already crowded map.


9.4.               In recent weeks the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically the differential powers and resources that frame the ability of central and local government to respond, has cast this question in sharp relief. While individual communities within city-regions will have different identities there is something to be said for the extent to which these are set to one side in a debate between Westminster and, for example, Greater Manchester.


9.5.               There are common themes running throughout this submission: structure, geography, culture and identity are important, but they are second order considerations when set against the backdrop of the UK’s highly centralised governance arrangements.


9.6.               At a time of unprecedented change, we propose that the Government should be bold and proceed at pace with the devolution of power and resources to local government, and trust people to work pragmatically in shaping their own local destinies.




November 2020



[1] The Local Government Association (LGA) is the national voice of local government. We are a politically led, cross-party membership organisation, representing councils from England and Wales. Our role is to support, promote and improve local government, and raise national awareness of the work of councils. Our ultimate ambition is to support councils to deliver local solutions to national problems.