Decentralisation of political power: easier said than done

Published on Thursday, 20 February 2014 15:20
Written by Tom Gash

Influential decision makers, including Ed Miliband and the IPPR have spoken out on the desperate need to give more power to citizens and communities, transferring power away from Westminster. 

Miliband, like Cameron, Brown, Blair and Major, described the state as centralised and unresponsive to service users and communities' need. There are nuances of emphasis – Miliband is at pains to point out that he does not want to see "the individual acting simply as a consumer" – but similarities outweigh differences.

His solutions to these problems are also variations on familiar themes. When Miliband promises that "the next Labour manifesto will commit to a radical reshaping of services so that local communities can come together and make the decisions that matter to them", we can hear echoes of David Cameron's similar commitment in 2009: "We need to redistribute power and responsibility. It's your community and you should have control over it. So we need decentralisation."

The problem is not that the diagnosis is wrong. England is remarkably centralised by international standards – and a the vast majority of people who've looked at the question think there are likely to be benefits from taking some power and fiscal control away from the Westminster and Whitehall.

No, the problem is that decentralisation is much easier said than done. Last week, the Institute for Government published Achieving Political Decentralisation, a report examining 30 years of attempts to transfer powers away from Westminster. As devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London show, it is possible to decentralise power. But these reforms succeeded where many others had less impact than was hoped for initially, such as attempts to introduce elected mayors, or failed entirely, like the aborted attempt to create directly-elected regional assemblies in 2004.

Resistance from one of the main groups who need to support – or at least consent to – shifts in power and control is the main reason past reforms have been watered down or scrapped.

First, national government. Cabinet ministers and officials often object that decentralisation to local authorities for some roles either doesn't make sense due to economies of scale gained through centralisation or (rightly or wrongly) lacks faith that local politicians will take the flack when things go wrong. History has shown all parties have their advocates of decentralisation but often also their opponents – including many who hold the purse-strings.

Second, there is resistance from local government. Structural reform, so often a route to reassuring national politicians that localities will take the flak for failings, often create local opposition. For example, in the case of elected mayors and the north east assembly, local councillors were fearful changes would result in a loss of power.

Third, there is resistance from the public. People are largely apathetic to local reforms unless it's very clear what the benefits will be, have a bias towards the status quo and are sceptical about more powers for politicians, even locally.

Successful reformers have overcome this potential opposition by building widespread support for changes, ensuring that decentralised powers are accompanied by clear accountability and by making sure that proposed changes are meaningful and intelligible to the public.

Vision is important – parties contemplating decentralisation must create a compelling case for change and be clear on the scale of change required. But it is imperative for manifesto writers to also recognise that change can be costly, and to understand the level of political capital that must be spent for it to be effective.

This recognition is a first step in creating a strategy for decentralisation that has prospects for success. We think that a serious attempt to decentralise would have similar characteristics to the policies of devolution to Scotland and London, including:

  • Clear commitment of the party leader.
  • Preparations beginning early.
  • Localities involved in reform design.
  • A clear manifesto pledge with a comprehensive set of powers on offer – and potentially referenda to demonstrate legitimacy of any new institutions.
  • A timeframe for implementation.
  • Leadership and coordination within the party, so that other ministers or shadow-ministers are not making commitments that clash with decentralisation.
  • Proper consideration of how new governance structures will work and what trade-offs may be required.

By setting his stall out in this speech, Ed Miliband has only put in place the first building block of an effective and implementable strategy for decentralisation. But there is much more work to do.

Tom Gash is director of research at the Institute for Government

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