Martin Rogers, Policy Advisor at the British Academy, investigates how devolution in England is working in practice and the impact its having on local authorities.
Most people will only really engage with devolution if and when they can see the impact it has on their lives. That finding motivated the British Academy to investigate devolution in practice. Among those we spoke to, we found a real desire to make a success of devolution but also a willingness to move beyond political structures to focus on what really matters: people working together.
The Governing England programme was initiated to investigate the governance and government of England. Mayoral combined authorities and the northern powerhouse have the potential to change how England is governed so we conducted eight roundtables from Newcastle to Bristol to, first, explore support for mayors and then look at specific services.
The work of our first year told us that few people at that point greatly cared about devolution. This was borne out by the low turnout rates in metro mayor elections - barely above 20% in Tees Valley. However, many of those we spoke to told us that people will engage if they can see the results. If people can see things going wrong they want to complain or to engage. If they have a political figure who they can engage with they are more likely to see the point of devolution. And if local council leaders no longer feel removed from decision making they may be able to deliver better services for their voters.
“If you go through Darlington on the train you see a national centre for biological research. Highways England didn’t have a plan to put a road there, so the road isn’t there, but I am the one that the public come to and say ‘you didn’t bother to build a road to it.’”
One council leader in the Tees Valley summed up the frustration felt by many towards decision making bodies that a West Midlands leader described as too distant: “London does not understand, it is too far away”.
In our second year of the project, we looked at three issues: health and social care, skills and infrastructure. We focused on health and social care in Manchester where many attendees supported devolution for practical reasons, largely because they felt that health services already vary so much that the NHS is national in name only. If services are better tailored to the places they serve it should improve services by allowing them to be flexible and joined up. We heard a doctor call for ‘systems without walls’ as patients do not recognise or care about the differences between services, providers or funding arrangements. This echoes the call from Public Health England to ‘blur the boundaries’ between health care institutions.
Whoever gets the blame usually wants some control. If central government politicians and officials are held ultimately responsible for service failure, they are likely to be less willing to devolve power. Accountability is especially important for health because lives can be at stake. Addressing this tension between control and accountability could make or break devolution.
Secondly, we looked at skills because so many councillors we spoke to in our first year mentioned their desire for greater control over skills. All combined authorities have some control over skills and the Adult Education Budget is set to be devolved. In November 2017 the metro mayors and the Mayor of London issued a joint statement which stressed the importance of devolving powers over skills, training and apprenticeships. This is because the economy of London is different to the economy of Liverpool or the Tees Valley. What works in one may not work in the other. One employer told us they are so frustrated that “courses out there aren’t right for our staff” that they could set up an Academy to train their staff. It is not only a lack of skills that is a problem - a mismatch between available and demanded skills leads to poor productivity. Some in the North West are now regularly surveying employers to get an idea of the skills they need. But Further Education providers told us that one problem is poor schooling. And experience with technology and artificial intelligence have the shown the need to look beyond basic skills to attitudes such as creativity and enthusiasm.
Our final area was infrastructure because it was another area that councillors had highlighted to us as one where decisions could be taken more locally. Employers are reporting that potential employees are demanding higher wages or declining jobs in certain areas due to the poor infrastructure. In the Midlands we heard that a lack of stability led to funding starting and stopping so that a stretch of road near Nottingham was started in the 1970s but only finished recently. England’s patchwork governance has not delivered joined up decision-making.
Overall, we found a widespread desire to make devolution work. Making it work will mean taking time to try to resolve the tension around national standards and the ‘postcode lottery’ especially as areas retain more of the revenue they raise and the state redistributes less. But what matters is that the people within political structures work together. Some people have called for new regional structures to help coordinate services, but others ask ‘if people can’t work together within the current structures how will adding more help?
All public services cross boundaries because people’s lives cross boundaries. The success of devolution, as with public services, will be measured not by the purity of the boundary or the structure but by the desire of those within them to make it work.