Has devolution to England been successful?

Often when the term devolution is considered people automatically consider devolution to the nations of the UK and the devolution of powers that has taken place in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, it is also important to consider the devolution of powers that has taken place in England, whether it has been successful and whether, consequently, it should be extended.

Where has devolution taken place within England?

Since 1998 there have been a number of ways in which devolution has taken place in England:

  • Devolution to London
  • The creation of Combined Authorities and Metro-Mayors
  • The creation of Police and Crime Commissioners

One area where devolution has not been extended is through the creation of and English Parliament. This is significant and controversial.

How has devolution taken place in London?

Sadiq Khan is the third directly elected Mayor of London.

When Labour asked the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland whether they were in favour of devolution through a referendum, the same was asked of Londoners. The response was that in 1998 72% of Londoners voted in favour of a Greater London Assembly and a directly elected Mayor of London. Whilst turnout was low at just 34%, every single council area voted in favour.

There had been some history of devolution of powers to London. Between 1965 and 1986 there existed a Greater London Council. The Council had strategic control over issues such as the fire service, emergency planning and waste disposal and was responsible for the construction of the Thames Barrier. The most famous figure in the GLC was Ken Livingstone who was a member between 1973 and 1986 and was Council Leader from 1981 to 1986. Livingstone often found himself in conflict with the Westminster Government over his high-spending policies and had a number of public political disputes with Margaret Thatcher’s Government. In 1985 Parliament, working under Thatcher’s 144 seat majority, passed the Local Government Act (1985) which abolished the GLC and distributed its powers back to London Borough Councils. Following this, power in London was no more devolved than in any other area of London.

Ken Livingstone was the first Mayor of London.

However, Blair was keen to re-establish devolution in London and planned to so on a much greater level than had been the case under the GLC. In 1998, following the Referendum, the Greater London Authority Act created a London Assembly and elected Mayor London. The first elected mayor was Ken Livingstone and quipped “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted 14 years ago…”.

The Act created a London Assembly of 25 members. This is elected using the Additional Member System (as is used for the Welsh Parliament and Scottish Parliament). Since it’s inception its make-up has been:

The current make-up of the Assembly is:

Labour – 11

Conservative – 9

Green – 3

Liberal Democrat – 2

The powers given to the London Assembly under the 1998 Act include:

  • Approving London’s Budget
  • Holding Mayor’s Question time
  • Confirming some mayoral appointments
  • Conducting Investigations and Producing Reports

The Act also created a directly elected Mayor with executive powers in London. The Mayor is elected every four years and the electoral system used is the Supplementary Vote system. The rationale behind using this vote is that it means that the winning candidate will have won at least 50% of all eligible votes (under SV votes that are not for one of the two final candidates are discounted in the second round).

Since 1998 the directly elected mayors of London have been:

The powers granted to the Mayor in 1998 include:

  • Transport
  • Fire Services
  • Housing
  • Setting London’s Budget

Over time, a number of Acts of Parliament have given more to the Mayor of London, confirming Ron Davies’ prediction that devolution is a ‘process not an event’:

Greater London Authority Act (2007) – This gave the Mayor powers over housing strategy in London. It also gave the Mayor control over strategic planning of new building developments and allowed them to overrule Borough Councils in some instances. It is put the Mayor in charge of Waste Management Policy and ensured that Climate Change was considered by the Mayor when developing policies.

Localism Act (2011) – The Localism Act abolished the London Development Agency and replaced it with the GLA Land and Property Corporation. It also placed an onus on the Mayor of London to publish long-term strategies for London’s economic and environmental development.

Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act (2011) – This act made the Mayor of London the De Facto Police and Crime Commissioner for London.

Not all powers in London are invested in the Mayor of London of the Assembly. Some are shared with borough councils or are still carried out directly by borough councils:

Has devolution to London been successful?

There are a number arguments to suggest that devolution to London has been a success:

  • Mayoral elections have been competitive with high-turnouts compared to other new institutions. The turnout in 2021 was 42%.
  • The model has been adopted in new combined authorities.
  • Mayors have been innovative with policies they have created, for example with the congestion charge. This was introduced in 2003 and is the largest congestion charge zone in the world. Since its introduction it has reduced traffic in London by 10% and has led to a decreased level of pollution. This was an issue particularly facing London which devolution has allowed them to tackle.
  • The electoral system means that Assembly Members are broadly representative of the wishes of the electorate.
  • The position of Mayor of London has been used as an international envoy for the city and has soft power benefits.

Some arguments against it success include:

  • The London Assembly is arguably not powerful enough. The AMS system means that there is often not a strong enough opposition to scrutinise the Mayor.
  • Turnout is still low compared to the national devolved territories.
  • The Mayor can easily be overruled by central government. His biggest power is the power of persuasion. These tensions were seen through the Grenfell Tower disaster where the Mayor of London believed the Government were to blame and it could have been avoided.
  • TfL, one of the major responsibilities of the Mayor of London, has been close to bankruptcy. In October 2019, it was in 11.175bn of debt and has had to be bailed out by central government.

Why did Labour’s Plan for regional devolution not take-off?

One of the ideas held by New Labour was that following the successful devolution of power to London, power should be devolved across the regions of England. The accepted regions of England are:

Proposals were put forward to devolve powers to three regions in the first instance:

  • North East England
  • North West England
  • Yorkshire and the Humber
The people of Newcastle said no to further devolved powers.

As in the case of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London, the suggestions were first put to a referendum and the first region to be asked the question was the North-East in 2004. However, in the referendum 77% of voters rejected devolution to the region. Following the decisiveness of this vote Labour then dropped their plans and held no further referendums on devolved regional powers.

What are Combined Authorities and Metro-Mayors?

A combined authority is the process of combining local councils for an extra-layer of governance. Local borough councils continue to exist, but some of their tasks are handed to an overarching combined authority. This is a model that has been followed across the UK following the success of its introduction in London. An example of a combined authority is Greater Manchester:

All these Borough Councils exist, but a Combined Authority also ties them together.

Across England there are now 10 combined authorities.

Labour’s Andy Burnham is the Mayor of Greater Manchester.

At the Head of these combined authorities is often a directly elected metro-mayor. Indeed, of the ten combined authorities only one, the North East, does not have a directly elected Mayor:

(C) Financial Times

The powers of each Metro-Mayor will differ based on the agreements locally:

(C) Centre for Cities

What are the advantages and disadvantages of Metro-Mayors?

Some of the potential strengths of the system of Metro-Mayors include:

  • They allow for bespoke solutions to local issues to be formulated. For example, Greater Manchester has a significant homelessness crisis and have but in place new schemes for rough sleepers. In Liverpool the Mersey Tidal Power project is helping to produce lower cost and environmental friendly energy.
  • They help to reinforce the sense that England is not just about the South and not just about London. In the longer term the sense of regeneration in the North seems stronger than it was before metro-mayors.
  • Metro-Mayors have been able to stand up to central government over funding for their areas. For example, in 2017 it was announced that the Government were going to scrap the electrification of the Manchester-Leeds train line whilst simultaneously giving the green light to Crossrail II in London. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham stood up to the government and the plan was reinstated.
  • Mayors have been able to represent their cities in times of need. For example, Andy Burnham helped Manchester come together after the terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert:
  • Like the Mayor of London they can wield soft power and make their cities more internationally renowned.
  • Mayoral elections have been competitive with high-turnouts compared to other new institutions.

Some of the potential weaknesses of the system of Metro-Mayors include:

  • The public image of metro-mayors varies. Whilst some, like Andy Burnham, are very well known, others are not. In a poll in 2021 only 33% of residents of combined authorities could name their metro-mayor. (However, only 8% could name their Local Council leader).
  • Many Metro-Mayors have much less power. There is asymmetry in how powers have been devolved across the country.
  • They seem a popular concept with voters. In a 2021 poll 83% of voters believed their metro-mayor should have more power.
  • Mayors are constrained by the money they are given by central government. They have limited tax-raising powers. For example, the budget for Tees Valley, an area needing investment, is just £450m over 30 years. This issue was highlighted during COVID-19 when Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham was involved in a significant dispute with central government over the fact that Greater Manchester as but in Tier 3 restrictions but not given greater financial support from the Government.

What are Police and Crime Commissioners and have they had a significant impact?

Tony Blair’s Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott ran in 2012 to become the first PCC for Humberside but lost on the second round.

In their General Election Manifestos in 2010 both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats promised to reform the existing police forces across England and Wales. This policy had been part of the Conservative Manifesto since 2005. As part of this, they proposed introducing elected Police and Crime Commissioners for the Police Forces across the UK. The logic behind this was that my making the strategic head of the police and elected position you would make them accountable to local voters. Police and Crime Commissioners (which are often combined with Fire Service Commissioners) are responsible for:

  • Appointing the leading operational figures in the Police, including the Chief Constable.
  • Controlling police funding and long-term economic planning.
  • Establishing strategic aims for the Police.

However, Police and Crime Commissioners have not had the impact that the Coalition Government planned for them. Notably:

Cressida Dick was often in conflict with the Mayor of London, the de facto PCC of London.
  • Public understanding of the role of PCC is poor. A survey from 2013 after one year of the new role suggested only 10% of people understood the role of PCCs and believed they increased the accountability of Police strategy.
  • Relationships between PCCs and the Operational Heads of the Police Forces are often strained. This was the case in the relationship between Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London and Cressida Dick, Head of the Metropolitan Police. (In London the Mayor is the effective PCC whilst the Head of the Police is confusingly called the Police Commissioner).
  • A number of regions have already chosen to abandon the separate position of PCC and integrate it with the roles of the metro-mayor. This is the case in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire as well as London.
  • PCCs are often too focused on local issues and this can hurt national policing priorities. This for example is the case with ‘County Lines’ drug operations where drug-dealers from an area are travelling to sell drugs elsewhere.
  • Electoral support for Police and Crime Commissioners has been very low. In 2016 the turnout was 27.3% whilst in 2012 it was just 15.1%. In 2012 the Essex Police and Crime Commissioner in 2012 was elected with less than 5% of his constituency voting for him.

Overall it is quite clear that Police and Crime Commissioners have not had the impact that was intended for them.

Should there be an English Parliament?

One of the most significant potential reforms when it comes to English Devolution is the notion that England should have its own Parliament. There has not been an English Parliament since the Act of Union in 1707. However, since 1998, England is the only constituent nation of the UK that does not have its own Parliament.

A problem with this current arrangement is the West Lothian Question. The West Lothian Question was an issue raised by Labour MP Tam Dalyell in 1977 when devolution was being considered. He pointed out that there would be in imbalance whereby Welsh and Scottish MPs could vote on issues that would only affect England but the reverse was not true. When devolution was carried out in 1998 this came to pass. In fact, there were a number of significant occasions whereby this came to pass:

Blair was only able to pass some significant ‘English Only’ issues with the support of his Scottish MPs.

Foundation Hospitals (2003) – Labour MPs voted against the Governments plans for foundation hospitals. This meant that English MPs voted against it by 1 vote. However, the motion passed due to Welsh and Scottish Labour MPs voted for it, even though the new Hospitals would not be introduced in Scotland or Wales.

Tuition Fees (2004) – Tony Blair’s New Labour Government decided in 2004 to introduce ‘top up fees’ that university students would pay towards their own tuition. This was very controversial amongst the left-wing of his party and 71 Labour MPs rebelled against the change. However, the motion passed by 316-311 votes. This was because Scottish Labour MPs voted for the motion even though it would have no impact in their own constituencies.

David Cameron promised to fix this issue and introduced amendments to the legislative process known as English Votes for English Laws. However, even with this new process in place bills could pass or fail against the wishes of English MPs, as shown in the Sunday Trading provisions of the 2016 Enterprise Bill.

In July 2021 the EVEL process was abandoned by the Conservative Government leaving the situation back in the tenuous position that it was in 2015. This means there is a fundamental imbalance within the constitution and English voters may feel somewhat underrepresented under the current system.

There are a number of arguments that there should be an English Parliament:

  • The establishment of the English Parliament is the only true way to solve the West Lothian Question. It will never be satisfactorily dealt with until there is an English Parliament.
  • Opinion polls suggest that people in England are in favour. For example, in 2014 a Comres poll found 62% in favour of an English Parliament.
  • An English Parliament could be located outside of London and increase the feeling of connection that English people have with their elected representatives.
  • It would help to make sure that English identity is recognised and respected, in the same way that the Scottish Parliament allows Scottish identity to be recognised.
  • Without an English Parliament there is an increasing risk to the union of the United Kingdom. Increasingly, there is a sense that a Federal approach might be a better constitutional basis for government in the UK.
  • Arguments in favour of an English Parliament include:

    An English Parliament would inevitably mean a move towards a federal system. This would mean powers across the different regions would need to be equalised and not all regions might be capable of possessing this power.
  • England is significantly bigger and more powerful than other regions and in any federal system England would simply dominate anyway. There may also be significant conflict between the First Minister of England and the Prime Minister of the UK.
  • A whole new level of government would need to be created, with even more politicians. This comes at a time when distrust for politicians is at a high this is not likely to be popular.
  • It would be difficult to define the powers of the Westminster Parliament if a new English Parliament came into existence. There would be danger of conflict between the Westminster Parliament and the English Parliament.
  • The same positive impacts could be achieved through creating an ‘English Votes for English Laws’ system at Westminster that actually works. A new Parliament is not needed.
  • England is too big and diverse to make this idea effective. Devolution would better go forward with more combined authorities and more power being given to them.

Has English Devolution been successful?

There are competing arguments overall as to whether devolution to England has been successful. Some arguments that is has include:

  • There seems to be no impetus to reverse the current system and more English devolution is planned.
  • It promotes a greater sense of equality across the UK as people believe local issues are being listened to.
  • The new system allows experimentation and innovation in law-making. These areas have become legislative laboratories.
  • It has extended democracy and created more chances for participation.

Arguments that it has not been successful may include:

  • Devolution is asymmetric, different regions have very different powers.
  • It has not solved the West Lothian Question.
  • Britain is ‘sleep-walking’ into becoming a Federal State and English devolution needs to be part of a fundamental constitutional reform.

Overall, it is clear that further devolution to England is going to be extended. The question is as to how this should happen. Should it happen on a local level or nationally through an English Parliament?

There is also the issue of how the process of further devolution can be carried out in a politically neutral way. This has been put under pressure recently with plans announced by the government to change electoral laws so that future mayoral elections are carried out under FPTP, a decision that would electorally benefit the Conservative Party. This highlights one of the issues of devolution that its process is in the control of the Westminster Government which is normally dominated by one political party.

Article Summary

English Devolution has continued to grow since 1998. However, like national devolution, this is not without its challenges. The process has seen the creation of combined authorities and metro-mayors, yet in some instances, these haven’t had the impact that has been seen in other areas. In addition, some innovations like Police and Crime Commissioners have simply not been particularly successful.

Key Terms

West Lothian Question – The issue whereby English MPs cannot vote on devolved issues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but the reverse is not true.

English Parliament – The notion of an English Parliament, similar to the devolved Parliament in Scotland.

Combined Authority – A term given when local councils have some of their functions combined to give power to a larger body.

Metro-Mayor – Mayors of metropolitan (city) areas that have had power devolved to them.

English Votes for English Laws – The changes to the legislative process made by the Conservative Government in 2015 to attempt to deal with the West Lothian Question.

Police and Crime Commissioners – Elected heads of local police forces. Police and Crime Commissioners were introduced in 2012 by the Coalition Government.

London Assembly – The devolved Parliament for Greater London.

Mayor of London – The directly elected Mayor of the Greater London Authority. It is currently Sadiq Khan.

Greater London Authority – The Executive branch of the devolved institutions of London.

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