English local government and devolution: inconsistent and incomplete

Alex Walker
By: Alex Walker

The localised approach to the pandemic is over for the time being. But the tensions in English governance it brought to the fore remain unresolved. The recent stand-off over financial support raised the profile of particular city leaders and generated much discussion of decentralisation and regional government. For some, this visibility was evidence of the success English devolution; whilst for others, it revealed its lack of teeth. Regardless, beneath the rhetoric there is a complex and inconsistent array of different local and regional arrangements. How did this come about? A history of piecemeal reforms and a half-finished process of devolution.

Currently in England, there are a mixture of unitary, district and county local authorities; some of which are led by a cabinet, some by an elected mayor and others by committee system. In addition, there are also combined authorities to add to the picture – through which local councils, usually of city areas, formally collaborate under the leadership of a directly-elected mayor. London, however, operates under a different system. This variety in part stems from a process of periodic changes that have often added new options to the system without replacing old ones.

The Local Government Act 1972 established the standard two-tier structure of county and district level councils – with delivery of local functions divided between them. The 1990s then saw the advent of unitary authorities, which were formed by merging the county and district levels to create a single authority responsible for the delivery of all local services. Some areas in England have opted for the unitary model, while others have retained the county-district split.

The next innovation in local government came with the Local Government Act 2000which put new governance arrangements for local authorities on the table. It allowed for councils to move to either a ‘leader and cabinet’ model or to a directly-elected mayor (via referendum). These changes were intended to replace the old committee system which it was felt had become ineffective. However, initial provisions designed to phase out the committee system – particularly in larger authorities – were later scrapped, allowing for it to be retained or reintroduced.

Around the same time, the Greater London Authority (GLA) was in the process of being created. Elections for the Mayor of London and 25 Assembly members were first held in 2000, instituting a form of English governance that remains distinct.

The ‘devo deals’, the subject of much of the recent attention, have a different origin. The Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 contained provisions for the creation of ‘combined authorities’, the idea being to allow for the legal formalisation of partnerships between local authorities. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) was then created in 2011 and a first deal on the devolution of wider powers agreed in 2014. This formed the model for further regional deals – advocated in particular by George Osborne. It was Osborne who decided that a directly elected mayor was to be a condition of regional devolution – a stipulation that was included in the legal framework for the deals, set out in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. There have been 10 deals reached thus far via these powers, in each of which a different package of functions has been devolved.

As this brief history indicates, successive governments have added to and modified the system without first having a coherent, overarching strategy. The creation of the GLA formed part of a broader New Labour programme of devolution and constitutional reform that has itself been criticised for being piecemeal and lacking a narrative. The London reforms were largely a response to its status as something of an anomaly – being the only Western capital without its own elected leadership. Likewise, what became the ‘devo deals’ were in many ways as much an outcome of the particular situation in Greater Manchester as they were a part of a coherent government plan. 10 local authorities in the Manchester city area had a longstanding history of collaboration – the creation of the combined authority model was in part a way of allowing them to legally institutionalise this relationship, from which the devolution of further functions then eventually followed. It was only subsequently that Osborne decided the model was worth replicating, primarily in relation to the Northern Powerhouse agenda.

As a result of this partial and reactive approach to reforms, the present picture is a messy and inconsistent one. Greater Manchester’s status as something of a prototype has led to a more expansive settlement than in most other deals. In particular, it has involvement in healthcare strategy that has not been on the table in negotiations with other combined authorities. However, the Mayor of the Greater Manchester, as of other combined authorities, lacks the executive power of the Mayor of London. Whilst the London Assembly has few means of blocking the decisions of the London Mayor, the Mayor of Greater Manchester has to preside over an executive made up of the leaders of each participating local authority, who may or may not share their politics. Most local authority leaders, by contrast, have a party majority on their own councils.

In the delivery of local services and investment the situation is also inconsistent – in different areas falling variously to a county council, a district council, a unitary authority, a combined authority or central government. As already mentioned, each ‘devo deal’ negotiation has led to a different allocation of regional functions. Whilst all the agreements vary to some extent, some differ more than others. Cornwall, for example, is the only place in which additional powers have been devolved to a single unitary (rather than combined) authority with no requirement for a directly-elected mayor.

It is worth noting that this hotchpotch of governance arrangements and responsibilities is a particularly English phenomenon. Scotland and Wales lost the two-tier model in the 1990s, replacing it with an entirely unitary system. Similarly, Northern Ireland is organised solely into 11 district councils. A cursory glance further afield to France also shows a more consistent framework of local and regional governance. The country is divided into the region, department and commune level – each of which is governed by an elected council with distinct responsibilities. In some ways it is unsurprising that this inconsistency is so pronounced in England given the context of national devolution in the UK. Nevertheless, it highlights the extent to which the question of English devolution is yet to be fully addressed.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto promised ‘full devolution across England’, but we are yet to hear what this would actually entail. An English Devolution White Paper has been promised for some time, but repeatedly delayedThe FT recently reported that it had now been shelved until 2021. When it is finally published, many will be looking to see if the recent flare-ups between central government and regional leaders have dampened this administration’s enthusiasm for further devolution. If so, this would be a wasted opportunity as the current system is still a highly centralised, as well as inconsistent, one.