Devolution revolution

After years of asking for more localism and devolution in England, local government got it in 2015. Giving control of business rates back to councils and the deals laying the foundations of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ in Manchester (and 38 other ‘city regions’ or combined authority areas) are a major shift. However, they have a sting in the tail, in that they could reduce equalisation as much as they drive enterprise, producing clear winners and losers.

Sceptics have many reasons why the Government would encourage such a transfer of decision making powers, including using it to mask spending cuts. One thing is clear: the voice of the public has been at best on the periphery of the debate so far.

By and large these deals have been put together in the corridors of local government, with limited public involvement. In England, around 62% of the population resides within an area which could imminently receive new decision making powers around economic development, transport, housing, planning and policing. Yet 42% of these have either never heard of devolution or know nothing about it, whilst a further third (34%) claim to know ‘just a little’.

So why is there such an apparent reluctance to involve the public in democratic debate? Polling shows that the public is overwhelmingly in support of the principle of local decision making, and yet central and local government have neglected the need to engage them in any meaningful way.

Apathy and hostility could be part of the reason.

The Government favours the devolution of powers to newly elected metro mayors, but the public has demonstrated it is less convinced. As recently as 2012 the majority of England’s 11 largest cities voted against introducing elected mayors and our recent polling shows that it is an insignificant issue, with fewer than one in five stating they would have greater support for devolution if it meant electing a mayor.

Put simply, people don’t understand the impact of such proposals on their daily lives. While nearly half of people (45%) think that the London mayor has had a positive impact on the city, local councils have failed to communicate what the tangible results will actually be.

Then take fiscal devolution. This is central to councils’ ability to control the levers of local economic prosperity, but not something which the public can easily relate to. Ask the public to even estimate the percentage of taxes raised, retained and controlled locally and only 2% actually knows the correct answer (which is c.5%). In fact, people vastly overestimate the level of fiscal control they think local government currently has, with the average response being 39%. As a result of this misperception, people cannot begin to appreciate the difference fiscal devolution will have on their daily lives.

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They are also anxious about giving town halls more power: while most support giving Scotland some tax raising powers, they are opposed to giving the same powers to Manchester or London. When asked which services they felt should be controlled locally, hyper-local issues such as new housing developments and transport receive overwhelming support – the things that affect everyone’s daily lives.

The future of local services is where the support for local decision making is rooted – the key reason the public cites for supporting devolution is that it will allow local councils and other agencies to provide tailored solutions to local problems. Indeed, the minority which opposes devolution (only 17% of the English public) cite the risk of public service standards varying depending on where you live – the spectre of a ‘postcode lottery’ – as the key reason for not supporting the principle of local decision-making. However the public also supports having the same standards for public services everywhere in the UK, which partly explains the government’s desire to just get this done. As George Osbourne said this year: “I don’t know if it will work but I’m damn well going to try”.