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More devolution for the English regions?

Mike McCartney

2nd November 2020

There has been a lot of debate in recent weeks as to whether the Covid panademic would be better handled if the UK had a different, less centralised, system of government.

We can either consider this as the debate over the merits of a federal system (as in Germany, where central and regional governments are sovereign in their own spheres), or in terms of more extensive regional devolution for England.

With regards to the former, a Guardian editorial argues the case, and quotes Philip Rycroft an-permanent secretary:

‘Mr Rycroft noted that the best responses to Covid were from nations such as Germany, Australia and South Korea, which have seen “more devolution of power and responsibility and obligations to the local level”. The UK government’s poor Covid performance can be traced to its distrust of devolved governance. Whitehall tried to manage from the centre rather than localising decisions, a testament to Mr Johnson’s dubious “the end justifies the means” mentality. The UK should be moving towards a federal political structure where central, local and devolved governments work together. Instead, we are heading in the other direction.’

And in terms of more devolution in the England regions that is not necessarily along federal lines, these are the arguments I will be looking at with my Year 12s this week as we finish of the UK constitution topic and consider what sort of structure we would like to see in place in Yorkshire, or more locally in West Yorkshire.

These can be considered as the arguments in favour of English regional devolution

  • It is much more efficient to have the regions concerned with policy delivery involved in the formulation of policy,
  • On a related note, this would additionally this would relieve the burden on central government.
  • Evidence from the Celtic arenas suggests that there are clear benefits to bringing the government closer to the people since policies can be designed to fit the needs of the people in different regions
  • The governmental structures we have now are in need of remodelling: local government was designed to fit the needs of the mid-nineteenth century and central government expanded in the middle of the twentieth to meet the demands of that time.
  • Since the (unelected) Regional Development Agencies were scrapped in 2012 there is a lack of strategic co-ordination across many regions (except London, and Greater Manchester for example) with regards to economic development, regeneration, plans to boost employment, and so forth.
  • It would provide a counter-point to London-centricism; it is difficult to think of another polity that is so dominated economically and politically by its nation’s biggest city.
  • The regions in England need to have a platform that will give their area a voice enabling them to lobby central government for increased funding.

These can be considered as the arguments against English regional devolution

  • If every region in England were to have some sort of devolution, then regions would be fighting amongst themselves for the same amount of money that was available before.
  • Government would not be brought closer to the people unless the devolved powers assume real powers – as in Scotland.
  • Any new structures would merely add an extra layer of bureaucracy.
  • Regional assemblies would do little to improve economic performance within the regions.
  • Claims that devolution would usher in a new form of politics have not been borne out by experiences in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

John Harris in the Guardian also argues the case foe more decentralisation of government in the UK here.

As part of consideration of this topic, I’ve tried to come to some sort of conclusion. I’m not a fan of a federal Britain. For historical reasons, citizens in different parts of the UK don’t associate with regions in the same way that Americans do to the 50 states, or Germans to the 16 Landers. Ich bin ein East Midlandser, anyone? And would residents of Sunderland and Newcastle put their historic city rivalry (alleged to date back to the English Civil War) to one side and co-operate under a regional government?

So sitting writing this while looking out over the hills of God’s own county, and with knowledge of how popular Andy Burnham is among denizens of that city on the other side of the Pennines, and experience of living in London under two elected mayors, here is my overall assessment (and one that has been strengthened since Covid-19):

The time appears to have come for the extension of the directly elected mayor idea to more of Britain’s major city regions. This was an idea long championed by Tony Blair as PM (he was of a fan of what Rudy Giuliani achieved as New York Mayor), but it has taken a decade since he left office to come into effect outside London. Supporters of the idea can point to the success of the London Mayor, where Ken Livingstone’s decision to introduce the congestion charge proves that the mayor idea can bring about innovative solutions to problems that extend beyond traditional local government boundaries. Subsequently, Boris Johnson and Saddiq Khan have successfully used it as a platform to argue for London’s interests. Plus, although early days, we can also shine a torch on the success Andy Burnham has had as Mayor of Greater Manchester. The conjunction of a lack of desire for elected regional assemblies, and the success of London’s three mayors, may well mean that the time is ripe to usher in a new dawn for local democracy in the shape of a greater number of mayors of city-regions, with strategic responsibility for public policy.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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