English devolution - where are we now?

Whatever those in Westminster might think, they have to accept that power has been pushed out from the centre for good.

You may have missed it amid the political turbulence of the last few weeks, but on Thursday 4 May a quiet but seismic shift occurred in English government. Six city-regions across the country – Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, the Tees Valley, the West Midlands, the West of England and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough – elected their first executive mayors. This represents a fundamental juncture in how England is run, and yet very few people seem to either understand or care.

 One way of reading the changes in British government over the last century is as an oscillation between centralisation and devolution. Local government as we know it is a creation of the late-Victorian era, and reached its first heyday in the interwar years with the ‘gas and water socialism’ of municipally-owned utilities. The Second World War was a point of inflection back towards central government, first with Labour’s post-war nationalisations and later with Margaret Thatcher bulldozing local opposition to the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s. The abolition of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council – from just across the Thames in Whitehall – marked the apex of this trend.

 Since the 1990s, however, we have been back on the road to devolution. New Labour took the first major steps by creating the Greater London Authority and the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, though, progress has been far more sluggish. After Labour’s abortive attempt to create a regional assembly for the north-east (with the eventual aim of eight such bodies covering all of England outside London) the coalition government shifted the focus to the sub-regional level, especially to cities. Bristol, Leicester and Liverpool have elected mayors since 2010, while councils in the former metropolitan counties have been encouraged to club together and form combined authorities.

 After some tortuous negotiations between Westminster and local councillors, the fruits of devolution have been borne: six new political leaders with wide-ranging powers over some of the most economically important areas of England. All now act as focal points for democratic accountability in their regions, and all will be bullish in demanding more powers for their regions from central government.

 Despite the low voter turnout on 4 May, this is an exciting time for citizens of the six city-regions: a real opportunity to renew democratic participation at a level much closer to people's everyday lives. Nevertheless, the latest phase of devolution poses at least as many questions as it answers. With local government finances in such a poor state, will the mayors be able to enact their manifesto commitments? How will the existing city mayors of Bristol and Liverpool interact with their city-regional counterparts? What will become of the stalled mayoral deals for West and South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear and elsewhere? And, perhaps most importantly of all, what is the future of all the places ‘in between’, especially when some areas of non-metropolitan England have been the most neglected by successive governments?

 There are also major questions facing Labour, which holds only two of the new city-regional mayoralties, as well as London. The party has historically been lukewarm about English devolution (in contrast to its approach in the other UK nations) and has focused exclusively on winning power in nationally. Especially after the unexpected 'Labour surge' across England in the 2017 general election, we may need to think again about tacitly subjecting voters to Tory rule from Westminster by refusing to engage with devolution. 

Questions are now being raised about whether the present devolution process has run its course, especially since its key drivers - George Osborne and Jim O'Neill - have left government. Either way, the key checkpoint of establishing mayoralties for some of our main economic centres has been reached. Whatever those in Westminster might think, they have to accept that power has been pushed out from the centre for good.


James Bartholomeusz is a Young Fabians member.

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