A devolution revolution?

This is a guest blog by Abby Gilbert from the New Local Government Network.

As our world becomes increasingly connected, democracy becomes increasingly complex. The forces that shape the lives of our communities are often the result of decisions made on the other side of the world – let alone at the other end of the country. In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that the majority of the British population have just voted to ‘take back control’. Brexit was a vote against the establishment, both in Westminster and in Brussels. But it was also a vote against the inaccessible, bureaucratic and often non-transparent approach the EU offered.

Devolution presents an opportunity to address some of this discontent, by relocating decision making power within communities. However, for this to result in real change, systems must alter, not just move power centres. If we have learnt anything from the last few weeks, it is that representative democracy alone cannot bestow a sense of democratic justice. To achieve the outcomes they seek, our political representatives – and the civil servants who serve them – must get creative about empowerment, and present citizens with the opportunity to engage in and get excited by processes of change.

The first opportunity is at the city regional scale. Metro Mayors are a valuable addition to our democratic landscape. It’s good to have a person voters can hold accountable. But the buck cannot stop here. While this may excite people to engage more with governance of their city regions, devolution should also create structures which cultivate ongoing civic consciousness, and create future place leaders. Informed and ongoing citizens juries on the future of their local high streets, community commissioning groups on adult health and social care, community development corporations for future land use, participatory budgets for arts and culture are just some of the approaches this might include. The public must also play a vital role in shaping any future devolution asks or deals for their place.

But as discussed in our latest report, Devolution Revolution, these opportunities are, to a great extent, short circuited by the current lack of transparency from central government about the devolution process. Before city regions can meaningfully engage the latent creativity of their people, they have to know that the opportunities they are presenting are viable and will pass the hurdle of central acceptance. Otherwise, the risk is greater disengagement and disenfranchisement from the process of place making as people find their efforts to be futile.  

While it is widely agreed that the ‘bespoke’ approach offered in deal making is appropriate, it is clear that devolution so far has been asymmetrical. The public, and future combined authorities need to understand why this is the case. Not being able to understand what determines the success or failure of specific requests not only inhibits meaningful public consultations about future devolution. It also limits the creativity of local government and their ability to plan innovative, whole-system place changes over the longer term.

In federal systems and states with written constitutions, the basic rules of the game are codified and relationships between central and local government set out. This offers clear lines of accountability to the electorate, and a degree of certainty for local government. For government to keep up momentum in the devolution agenda, and to protect themselves from the kind of cynicism which caused the demise of the EU, they must go further with democratic participation and transparency about how decisions have been made.