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Devolution excites ‘chattering classes’ but few others, survey finds

Devolution excites ‘chattering classes’ but few others, survey finds

🕔03.Nov 2015

The Government’s devolution programme for English city regions remains a topic of conversation largely confined to the chattering classes, a new survey has found.

Despite featuring high on the Westminster agenda most people are blissfully unaware of the Chancellor’s pledge to introduce a devolution revolution and fewer than half even support the principle of transferring powers and budgets from Whitehall to councils.

Over three-quarters (76%) of people taking part in a study by Ipsos Mori, the New Local Government Network (NLGN) and PwC said they either knew a little or nothing about devolution.

Awareness of devolution proposals is no greater among those residing in the 38 areas which are currently trying to agree potential deals, including Birmingham and the West Midlands.

Only one in five (21%) in these areas know a ‘great deal’ or a ‘fair amount’ about the proposals which are likely to change the way their local public services are delivered.

However, the survey found that around half (49%) of all respondents supported the principle of decentralising local decision-making powers over economic development, transport, housing, planning and policing. Only 17% were wholly opposed to devolving these powers.

Support for local decision-making is driven by a belief it will allow local councils and other local agencies to be more flexible in responding to changing local demand (59%) and that local politicians know better than national politicians what is best for their local area (59%).

The key concern for those who do not support devolution is the fear of a “postcode lottery” – some 58% cited the risk that service provision might vary between areas as a result, whilst a similar proportion (58%) simply don’t trust local politicians to make the right decisions.

Support for local control is highest when it comes to planning housing developments and transport, but the balance tips in the other direction when it comes to benefit payments and large scale infrastructure projects related to air, rail and road, which most people think should remain under the control of Westminster.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study finds that people in the North of England who fall within the catchment of the so-called Northern Powerhouse, have a much higher level of awareness of devolution than throughout the rest of England. They are also the most supportive of the decentralisation process, with over half (53%) backing plans to devolve more decision-making powers around areas like transport, economic development and housing.

However, the research shows that there is still some headway needed to make those in the North more aware of the proposals for devolution. And whilst there is greater support for the principle of devolution, this has not yet translated into confidence in the ambitions of the Northern Powerhouse initiative, with only a quarter of those living in the region optimistic that it can achieve its aims.

The survey also shows that a further third (34%) of the public living in the North are ambivalent towards the Northern Powerhouse – neither optimistic nor pessimistic that its aims will be achieved, which when combined with those who are pessimistic (that its aims can be achieved), reflects a majority who remain unconvinced.

Looking to the Government’s proposals for including elected mayors in the decentralisation process, nearly half (45%) of respondents agreed that having a mayor had had a positive impact on London; however, the involvement of an elected Mayor does not make a great deal of difference to whether people support the principle of decentralising powers.

When asked, only 19% said an elected Mayor would make them more supportive of devolution, while 15% said that having an elected mayor would make them less so.

NLGN director Simon Parker said:

The public clearly supports the principle of the devolution revolution, but that support could curdle if they don’t have a say about the changes taking place in their towns and cities. Both central and local government need to bring this debate out of the backrooms of Whitehall and into the open air of democratic debate.

Commenting on the research and its findings, Jonathan House, Local Government Partner at PwC said:

These results show there is still work to do around communicating what decentralisation means for citizens but the debate will become more apparent as the focus moves from strategy and planning, to choices on economic growth investment and the implementation of redesigned local services.

These are the real issues that will make a real difference to the lives of people living in their communities.

Decentralisation offers the opportunity for local players to take a joined up approach to public service reform, redesigning services around the citizen.

But there will be difficult decisions ahead and councils need to engage the public in an honest discussion about the future shape of public services.

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