Working to make government more effective


Devolving English government

Devolved government in England is failing due to chronic over-centralisation, an incoherent tangle of institutions and a “democratic deficit”. 

Jack Newman Michael Kenny
Metro mayors Tracy Brabin, Steve Rotherham, Jamie Driscoll and Andy Burnham outside Leeds Central Station.

This report, part of the IfG and Bennett Institute review of the UK constitution, sets out the steps needed to empower England’s degraded, underfunded and fragile system of local government and make English devolution succeed.

These include:

  • The creation of a new Office for England – complete with secretary of state in cabinet – as a government department
  • The establishment of an “English Devolution Council” to give metro mayors a strong voice in British politics. 
  • New legislation to codify the rights and responsibilities of local government.
  • Cross-party commitments to “meaningful devolution” in every corner of England by 2030.

Drawing on data from across the UK and Europe, the report highlights Whitehall’s ‘power-hoarding”. It reveals that apart from Turkey, England, with a population of 55 million people, is the only large nation in the OECD to have such a centralised system of government. Its lack of localised funding and authority is equivalent to nations of 5–10 million people, like Finland and Latvia. 

The report says England’s incoherent governance arrangements are harder to grasp and tougher to navigate than almost any comparable country, with a mix of county and district councils, single local authorities, combined authorities with varying degrees of control over transport or housing, and networks of Local Enterprise Partnerships. Two-thirds of residents have no neighbourhood-level representation – parish councils cover 91% of England’s territory, but only 36% of the population. 

The report also warns of the “disorientation” created by major Whitehall departments failing to communicate that they are almost entirely dedicated to England, with the Department for Education now completely “English”, just 3% of the Defra budget relating to non-English responsibilities, and just 0.5% of the DHSC spent outside of England. Meanwhile, decades of Whitehall policy churn have resulted in unclear responsibilities for NHS care boards, education commissions, local authorities and policing jurisdictions, and created conflicting boundaries for interdependent services such as policing with the NHS or fire and rescue, or environment agencies with forestry commissions.
This “incoherence” has helped create a democratically disenfranchised England, with local election turnout in England failing to hit 50% for more than 50 years, and rarely rising above 40% – markedly lower than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland since devolution – in the last 25 years. This local election turnout in England far lower than in nations with similar economic strength (France and Italy) and culture (Ireland), as well as those with greater local autonomy (Sweden and Finland).   

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