Ten years after the rejection of the elected regional assembly on offer to the North East region of England and in the wake of the Scottish referendum result, the governance of England is once more in flux. Elements of an emerging consensus are becoming clearer. The UK and especially England’s governance is overly centralised especially when considered in international context. Whitehall doesn’t know best and can’t run England on a centralised, top-down and ‘command and control’ model. The decentralisation ‘genie is out of the bottle’, the ‘door is open’ and irreversible change has been set in train that can’t easily be ignored by government of whichever stripe. Continued austerity means local government can expect less money from the centre in future beyond the current revenue squeeze. Local government needs to have more and new ways of raising their own money and enhanced flexibilities and freedom in using it. Local government has wide responsibilities but narrow, multiple and fragmented funding sources most of which are centrally determined. More deals are on offer and directly elected and city-regional ‘metro’ mayors and Combined Authorities are the centre’s preferred governance arrangements with which to negotiate and decentralise.
So far, so decentralised. Thorny questions remain, however, as the limitations of the piecemeal, ad hoc and – as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described it at the recent Northern Futures Summit – “higgledy piggledy” decentralisation journey unfold. The latest instalment of which is a new round of bespoke centre-local deals. Our current work as part of the EPSRC/ESRC-funded iBUILD research centre <https://research.ncl.ac.uk/ibuild/> has been reviewing the 29 – and counting – City Deals emerging since 2010. Some positives are evident in providing some (albeit modest) enhancement of decentralisation and encouragement of city-regional strategy-making, prioritisation, innovation, co-operation, joint working and some (conditional) resource. Less welcome are the uneven allocations of resources between and within city-regions, accentuated when local fiscal capacity is tied to uneven levels of local prosperity and tax bases of differing strengths, the lack of information for local actors on what is on and off the table in cutting deals with Whitehall, and the somewhat pragmatic and even selfish urbanism it is promoting as city-regions are compelled to grab what’s on offer ahead of and/or instead of others irrespective of needs. The politics – who gets what, where, when and how (to supplement Harold Lasswell’s classic definition) – seems reliant upon close and regular relations with Ministers and civil servants at the centre and sometimes the high coalition politics of the Quad. How complex and (il)legible it all looks from the outside to those in the investment community attracted to the UK but anxious about political risk is also a concern. Interests at the national centre recognise this uneven and mixed picture. But they counter that decentralisation and localism sets local areas free to act because there is no centralised blueprint cooked up in Whitehall. Local partners are able to develop and make their own propositions to government. A step-wise approach is seen as preferable to the kind of big bang or ‘all at once’ solutions that would encounter stubborn resistance from Whitehall departments. Staged and – what Jim O’Neill’s RSA City Growth Commission < http://www.citygrowthcommission.com/publication/final-report-unleashing-metro-growth/> – called “fastest first” approaches are promoted whereby those most ready, willing and able to receive the decentralisation from the centre are first in line for the powers and resources.
Yet, CURDS’ international review for CLG <https://blogs.ncl.ac.uk/curds/files/2013/02/DecentralisationReport.pdf> highlights the different shapes and sizes of decentralisation in terms of powers and money. Decentralisation is not an end in itself. A central question is asking what any decentralised powers are able to achieve. If the desired outcome is sustainable prosperity for people and places then the decentralisation needs to be designed to deliver it. Infamously, decentralisation is a process not an event. Many countries have embarked on the process without a clear sense of the end point. But those successfully proceeding down that path do at least have some kind of vision or – even incomplete – road map. In England, this could provide a sense of direction and speed of travel, reduce uncertainty, lessen the unpredictable and often short-term demands for local partners to articulate their propositions, minimise perpetual reorganisation, and provide a stronger way of changing the structures and cultures of centralisation ingrained in the English political economy. But it seems that only in the UK’s overly centralised governance of England would such a patchy, conditional and centrally orchestrated decentralisation process unfold. Muddling through in the traditional way may soon reach the structural limits of this kind of decentralisation.