The inherent contradiction in devolution

I recently attended a panel discussion hosted by the New Local Government Network on the implications of Brexit for local government. Delegates from a variety of councils, and organisations such as Open Europe and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, discussed with optimism the opportunities there will be for local government in the wake of the referendum result, rather than only worrying about the challenges that may be presented such as further public spending cuts.

Many of those present expressed hope that either outcome will be a chance to challenge the status quo in local governance arrangements. Hoping that either result will offer an element of finality to the EU question, the post-referendum landscape could allow devolution arrangements to be pushed further so that local communities are better placed to deal with the infrastructure and economic issues raised during campaigning.

As an example, the idea of devolving control over migration policy was floated, given that there are delays in statistics regarding immigration reaching central government to trigger assistance in specific areas for public services. In the meantime, GP practices and public transport can struggle to cope with the impact of a sudden influx of additional residents in their community, and could benefit from targeted local solutions driven by local policymakers. The significant regional variations in migration highlight the potential expediencies of devolving this policy area over taking a national approach.

Yet I couldn’t help but notice an inherent contradiction in this topic: that in a highly-centralised system such as ours, it ironically requires acquiescence from central government figures – both MPs and civil servants – to develop devolution arrangements and eventually hand powers over to local government. While we have seen proposals around English devolution over the past few years, these have so far been fragmented in their approach and have failed to spark a true ‘devolution revolution’.

This may be because those who see local governance as a solution to a failing system are far more likely to be those already involved in local government. Civil servants in Whitehall are unlikely to be able to see beyond their bubble to see the problems posed by centralised governance in local communities; let alone a future where devolution provides a solution to this. And what incentive does central government have to agree to this, when it will inevitably entail making some aspects of their job redundant?

To negate this contradiction, it will be necessary to generate pressure on central government officials from below, through local councillors and the general public, to further motivate national political parties to advocate devolution. But a great deal of what is written about devolution is negative: consider the campaign to abolish the Welsh Assembly altogether; or the budget deficit already threatening the devolved health and social care arrangements in Greater Manchester. The difficulties in concluding devolution agreements for vast geographical areas have also been shown in the arguments over the details of an East Anglian devolution agreement. It will be difficult to break through this wider narrative and convince all participants in the political process of the benefits of devolution.

A lot remains to be seen about how this will play out, and personally I believe that the EU referendum is unlikely to present an opportunity to contemplate this, regardless of the outcome. The New Local Government Network is due to launch a report on how to embed devolution on 13 July, and I look forward to seeing what recommendations they will make to further devolution. Whatever they are, they will need to provide a strong enough case to overcome the paradox of central government agreeing to weaken its own powers.