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  • Writer's pictureDavid Marlow

Making devolution work for local communities and economic growth

In this episode of LED Confidential, we are joined by John Tomaney, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London. We discuss whether the current approach to devolution in England is helping to address economic under-performance and regional inequalities, or whether the way it is being done exacerbates these and other societal challenges.

Construction site

How is the current approach to devolution in England failing?

Our discussions start with accountability and transparency in local economic development, We explore why devolution in England might actually reflect a broader crisis in liberal democracy, rather than be part of the solution.

First, English devolution outside London is being progressed via narrowly-drawn ‘deals’ between central government and local leadership teams – ideally headed by an elected mayor. These deals serve national policy goals more than a local grand vision. And the requirements of the UK Government’s accountability framework reinforces this upward accountability.

Second, the complexity and opacity of these processes, coupled with the hollowing out of local media, limits local scrutiny and accountability. For example, the recent controversy surrounding plans to create a Mayoral Development Corporation (MDC) in Teesside, have been largely reported by national media, and the current investigation is government-commissioned. Deal-based devolution significantly restricts local citizen and community ownership of the process.

Third, the ad hoc and asymmetric approach of the deal-based system has probably gone as far as it can in delivering change. The plethora of complex different arrangements on slightly varied terms over slightly different topics and themes places a huge strain on a resource-constrained and distant Whitehall. More often, it encourages inter-and intra-regional rivalries over cooperation and collaboration.

Will the current approach to devolution ever come good – or does it need radical change?

Probably the biggest concern of our discussion was the lack of drivers and incentives in the deal-based system for turnaround and transformational devolution. Indeed, the new requirement (since 2021) for first-past-the-post voting in mayoral elections, and further bidding competitions, encourage political gerrymandering and patronage. Current Labour Party proposals are short on detail about how they would reverse these trends.

How might we improve devolution and the decentralisation of power in England?

Towards the end of the episode, we frame an agenda for progressive progress. Long-term agreements including fiscal devolution; genuine place-based budgeting; a greater focus on influencing issues like the benefits system and the foundation economy; new territorial equalisation funding; together these could provide the basis for a devolution fit for purposes like levelling up.

These ideas are not new – stretching back to the Northern Regional Strategy Team of the 1970s, to the proposed ‘Total Place’ approach of the mid-late noughties. Nor are they exceptional globally with examples from Australia to post-unification Germany.

To be applied in England and the UK probably requires some sort of new constitutional settlement. And to be delivered effectively, next generation devolution agreements will also require bold local and regional leaders willing to advocate and agree inclusive grand visions and confront complex difficult issues locally to deliver them.

The LED and placemaking ‘prizes’ are there for the taking. But it is fair to say that John and the two of us felt that achieving this sort of change was still a very open question.


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