Undivided attention? A guide to devolution and why it matters.

January 1, 1970  

English devolution is back in the spotlight. As the Government prepares to publish a White Paper to set out its “offer for enhanced devolution across England”, we at NLGN have put together some FAQs to give you the devo-lowdown on one of our favourite topics:

1. What is devolution?
Devolution is the transfer of power from central government (the UK Government) to national, sub-regional and local governments (such as the Scottish Government, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Cornwall Council). The term can also be used to refer to the transfer of power from local government to town and parish councils and/or community groups.
2. What are the devolved nations?
The devolved nations of the UK are Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They have their own national governments and parliaments. Although the UK Government decides for the whole of the UK on some matters (such as defence and foreign policy), the governments of the devolved nations have control over many important policy areas, such as health, education and economic development. This means there are significant policy differences between different nations of the UK – for example, most young people in Scotland sit Highers and Advanced Highers rather than A-levels.
Click on the country name for more information on the history of devolution (up to 2018) in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
3. What is English devolution?
There is no devolved government or parliament just for England. Instead, English devolution refers to the transfer of power from the UK Government to sub-regional and local governments within England.
However, unlike in the devolved nations, sub-regional and local governments in England generally do not have control over entire policy areas such as health and education. The notable exception is London, where the Greater London Authority (GLA) has responsibility for transport, economic development, policing, and fire and emergency planning in London. The work of the GLA and the Mayor of London (who is the executive of the GLA) is scrutinised by the London Assembly, which is currently the only democratically elected regional assembly in operation in England.
Instead, English devolution in the last ten years has usually taken the form of ‘devolution deals’, where the UK Government formally agrees to devolve funding pots and a small number of powers to a partnership of local authorities, known as a combined authority (see FAQ 4). Other than the GLA, the main exception to this arrangement is Cornwall Council, which is the only local authority so far to gain a devolution deal without being part of a combined authority.
English devolution deals tend to focus on boosting local economic growth. Funding and powers are usually devolved to support transport, skills, housing, planning and general economic development programmes in the combined authority area. The only combined authority to receive a health and social care devolution deal so far is Greater Manchester.
Click here for a general overview of English devolution and here for a list of devolution deals agreed to date.
4. What do combined authorities, mayors and the Northern Powerhouse have to do with devolution?
Combined authorities are formal collaborations between two or more local authorities that are recognised in law. There are currently ten combined authorities in England. These are: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough; Greater Manchester; Liverpool City Region; North East; North of Tyne; Sheffield City Region; Tees Valley; West Midlands; West of England; and West Yorkshire.
The first combined authority, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, was established in 2011. There are no combined authorities in the devolved nations.
George Osborne, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced in a speech in 2014 that devolution deals would be open to combined authorities – but only to combined authorities led by a directly elected mayor, who would represent a single point of democratic accountability. Eight of England’s ten combined authorities are led by a directly elected mayor (only North East and West Yorkshire don’t have a mayor). All eight mayoral combined authorities have secured at least one devolution deal. Mayoral elections take place in the Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley and West Midlands Combined Authorities in May 2020.
The Northern Powerhouse, Midlands Engine, Western Gateway and Great South West are less formal regional collaborations of combined authorities and local authorities. They focus specifically on promoting economic development in the geographic area, with the support of the UK Government. As they are less formal collaborations than combined authorities, devolution deals are not currently available specifically for these areas, although a new regional transport organisation – Transport for the North – has been established to lead on strategic transport planning in the Northern Powerhouse.
5. Why is English devolution ‘back in the spotlight’?
After an initial flurry of activity under David Cameron and George Osborne, the devolution agenda entered a fallow period under Theresa May’s premiership. The only new combined authority to be formed during the May years was the North of Tyne Combined Authority in 2018.
When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in summer 2019, he and his Ministers pledged to revive English devolution as a means to ‘level up’ all parts of the country and reduce regional inequalities. The Conservative Party’s strong performance in the North and Midlands during the 2019 General Election appears to have reinforced the Johnson Government’s commitment to devolution. The December 2019 Queen’s Speech included a pledge from the UK Government to bring forward a White Paper to set out their proposals for English devolution.
6. What can we expect from the English Devolution White Paper?
UK Government Ministers have kept their cards close to their chest so far, but rumour is that the White Paper will include proposals [paywall] for local government reorganisation (most likely encouraging areas with district and county councils to combine them into one single council, i.e. a ‘unitary’ council) as well as more devolution deals and combined authority mayors.
The White Paper will also need to address the problem that some local authorities, especially in rural areas, have been put off seeking devolution deals because they do not want to form a combined authority led by a directly elected mayor. Roughly two-thirds of the population of England (outside London) do not live in a mayoral combined authority area.
7. How could English devolution help people ‘take back control’?
Think tanks like NLGN and local government groups such as the County Councils Network and Key Cities argue that, if we are truly going to reduce economic and social inequalities between the regions of England, we need more decision-making powers to be held by local areas and fewer to be centralised by the UK Government in Whitehall. This would give people throughout the country more opportunities to take part in the political decisions that directly affect their lives and their area, which would make democratic decision-making more representative and more in tune with the needs and ambitions of communities.
In NLGN’s 2019 report, The Community Paradigm, we called for English devolution to be unconditional. That means English devolution should be more like devolution in the devolved nations – with entire policy areas devolved, alongside the money to manage those policy areas effectively. An unconditional approach would devolve powers initially within existing governance structures rather than make devolution dependent on the adoption of a new governance model recommended by central government.
The current English ‘devolution deal’ arrangement tends to devolve pots of funding and limited powers on a case-by-case basis, and requires combined authorities/councils to submit progress reports and evaluations to the UK Government to demonstrate they are achieving the commitments set out in the deal. On the other hand, the devolved nations don’t have to submit progress reports and evaluations to the Government – they get devolution with barely any strings attached.
NLGN also believes that local government should receive more devolved fiscal powers as well as policy-making powers, and the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (which will replace some European funds after Brexit) should be devolved directly to communities so that they can decide on local priorities for the investment.
Got any more questions? We’re always happy to chat about devolution. Please get in touch!

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