Over the past century, England has become one of the most centralised nations in the developed world, despite the considerable powers devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the success of London, with its strong regional governance and mayoral leadership.
There are three crucial respects in which a centralised state may no longer be fit for purpose:
- Economically, seven of the eight English 'core cities' outside London have consistently performed below the national average in terms of GDP per capita, which is markedly different to the strong 'second-tier' cities of Germany, Italy, Sweden and France. In England's 'core cities' and beyond, there is a widespread understanding that the national economy needs regional rebalancing.
- Public service improvement and efficiency is a longstanding goal of any government, but is especially pertinent in a nation looking to reduce its fiscal deficit. Nevertheless, the 'new public management' approaches which characterised the 2000s – strict top-down targets and performance management regimes – been eased back on account of their tendency to stifle innovation and local flexibility and to generate service fragmentation, perverse incentives and poor outcomes.
- And politically, a storm is brewing. Public discontent with the Westminster bubble – politicians, civil servants, media, bankers – has been expressed through a collapse in political party membership, decreasing electoral turnout and the rise of populist parties like Ukip. A political system that has been captured by a small group of highly 'professionalised' politicians has led increasingly to deep political inequality in society.
We argue that England's 80-year-long experiment with centralisation has failed, and it is time to embark on a new journey: a programme of decentralisation that will liberate the nation, drive prosperity and growth, and provide a new platform for more innovative and effective public service reform and a society which is more equal.
Our 'Decentralisation decade'
Our programme is based upon:
- a set of principles and lessons for a phased and asymmetrical yet purposeful approach that offers different powers and responsibilities to different parts of subnational government over a 10-year period
- a series of safeguards to ensure that a programme of decentralisation avoids major risks
- some limited changes to the 'architecture' of subnational governance
- a clear timetable for enabling the decentralisation of nearly 40 key administrative, fiscal and political functions of government, starting prior to the 2015 general election.
We argue that decentralisation can and should be asymmetrical, with different places at different levels taking on different powers and responsibilities when they are willing and able to do so – the pace of decentralisation should no longer be dictated by the slowest movers.
We also set out why we believe popular and stakeholder support can be built for a systematic decentralisation programme, based on attitudes shown in public polls, surveys of local authority leaders and a series of interviews with senior Whitehall figures.
- Central government should embark on a 10-year programme of decentralisation with a clear timetable and whole-of-government approach.
- Powers and responsibilities over economic development and key public services should be passed to combined authorities, local authorities and other local bodies as and when they are ready to assume them.
- Fiscal devolution should be a central plank of the comprehensive spending review to take place in 2015, with five-year funding settlements agreed and an independent body established to take forward further central–local funding reforms.
- A new wave of combined authorities should be established, including 'county combined authorities' in two-tier areas, with all combined authorities setting out clear plans for partnership-working and enhanced democratic accountability.
- Decentralisation must be underpinned by new legislation to strengthen the constitutional status of local government and its other subnational partners, similar to the Scotland and Wales Acts.
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