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Devolution held back over fears councils will ‘do something barmy’

Devolution held back over fears councils will ‘do something barmy’

🕔10.Feb 2014

Promises to decentralise power issued during the 2015 General Election are unlikely to be delivered unless the Government learns from past mistakes including botched plans for regional assemblies and elected mayors, a think tank has warned.

The Institute for Government found that pledges to transfer control from Whitehall to regions and cities usually fall foul of a combination of factors in what amounts to a ‘triple lock’ rejection process.

Ideas for devolution tend to collapse because national government has little faith in local government, local councillors remain highly sceptical of what is being proposed, and the public simply doesn’t care or believe that anything will happen, according to the Institute.

The IfG research looked at case studies including devolved structures in Scotland, Wales and London, police commissioners, elected mayors, regional assemblies, City Deals and Combined Authorities.

Only in the case of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and the London Mayor have the initiatives enjoyed any measure of public support and been a success, the study found.

Gaining support for change from the public is crucial for change to happen. But too little attention is generally paid by the Government to persuading people of the case for decentralisation.

The study points out that referendums held to decide whether cities such as Birmingham should be governed by a directly elected mayor were largely unsuccessful because local councillors and MPs were opposed to the idea and voters remained indifferent.

Similarly, Labour’s attempts to form regional assemblies in the late 1990s fell apart because council leaders and councillors did not back the idea and the Government failed to sell the initiative forcefully enough to voters.

The IfG report points to “genuine obstacles to decentralisation in the UK political system”  that it says are difficult to navigate even where there is considerable commitment to reform.

One of the biggest hurdles identified in the study is the inbuilt scepticism and risk aversion of the civil service. A former Minister told IfG researchers there was a constant worry that local councils would “do something barmy” if handed additional powers and budgets.

The report notes: “Civil servants, whose instincts are to protect their ministers, will generally advise them not to risk devolving power without requisite accountability structures in place.” This attitude is said to be compounded by the London-based culture of UK media and politics.

The study warns: “While all parties have been good at making commitments to devolve power governments have found it hard to implement decentralising reforms in practice.

“The post 1997 Labour governments successfully created devolved structures in London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but plans to introduce regional assemblies and strong combined authorities in cities largely foundered.

“Similarly, while the current Government’s ‘City Deals’ have achieved some success in decentralising certain powers, plans for cities to adopt powerful elected mayors were not realised.

“In light of this mixed record, many have become somewhat disillusioned with political promises, believing that national parties would prefer to keep hold of political power.”

Future plans for decentralisation will require a “major co-ordination effort”, the paper argues, adding that at least three main groups must either support or acquiesce to reforms – national politicians, local politicians and the public.

Paradoxically, the failure of decentralisation and the protection of Whitehall powers usually backfires on the Government because the powerlessness of local government is simply reinforced.

The study warns: “Successive governments have found out to their cost that so long as local government remains disempowered, citizens will be sceptical of its importance.

“And without powerful and accountable local government, it is ministers and Whitehall who bear the brunt of the blame for local failures.”

“Gaining initial support–particularly from the public –is highly important to successful decentralisation.

“This is partly because many of these reforms create institutions requiring direct engagement from the public, either through referendums or elections.”

The report concludes that the lack of popular engagement at the outset has been a recurring problem for directly-elected mayors.

Of the 53 votes to date, the average yes vote has been 45 per cent, on an average turnout of only 29 per cent. For the 2012 city mayor referendums these figures were even lower, at just 41 per cent and 28 per cent respectively.

The IfG suggests that any political party serious about decentralisation must tackle obstacles under three themes:

  • Resistance by national government – the centre lacks faith in the competence of local government and its accountability for failure, but also struggles to agree within itself on decentralisation plans.
  • Resistance by local government – for example in the case of elected mayors and the North-East assembly, local politicians were reluctant to lose powers.
  • Resistance from the public – members of the public are largely apathetic to local reforms and sceptical about more powers to politicians, even locally.

Tom Gash, Director of Research at the Institute for Government, said:  “The UK is one of the most centralised countries of its size in the world so it’s unsurprising that politicians are already considering ways to decentralise political power after the 2015 General Election.

“For any plans to be credible, however, parties need to demonstrate that they have learned the lessons of past decentralisation successes and failures, for example the aborted effort to set up regional assemblies in 2004.

“Evidence suggests that success will be much more likely if reforms can be made relevant to the public, have the clear support of the party leader, and if cabinet-level colleagues are able to refrain from outlining policies in the areas they are promising to decentralise.

“Parties must also work collaboratively with local politicians and other groups to build support and develop a sufficiently detailed manifesto commitment.”

Cover Image: LGA

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