Devolution deals: three risks

Devolution to city regions is a central pillar of the conservative government’s industrial strategy. The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ model developed in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) is being rolled out through ‘Devolution Deals’ and the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. Advocates of devolution argue that it can close regional disparities in economic output by boosting growth in city regions. It is also argued that closer proximity of devolved administrations allows policy to be tailored to local needs; that devolution contributes to increased dynamism by creating opportunities for local innovation and increases local participation and accountability. As recently summarised by the Local Government Association these are points of consensus in British policy circles.

However, the evidence of devolution as a driver of economic growth, convergence in social and regional inequalities and is pretty thin.  For example, one analysis of devolution concluded that the evidence in favour of such links is very weak and another found a moderately negative relationship. It seems that this evidence is overlooked by the general consensus in favour of devolution amongst policy makers.  In this blog, I will set out three key ‘risks’ that explain failure to deliver on the ‘economic dividend’ argued for by so many proponents of devolution.

The balance between the transfer of resource and responsibility

It is often argued that the ‘litmus test’ of devolution is the balance between the transfer of policy responsibility and resource capacity. On this test, it can be said devolution in the UK has been non-existent in recent history – the purse strings have remained under tight Whitehall control. Research on the coalition government’s devolution reforms found that the scale of devolved functions heavily outweigh the devolution of resources to carry these out effectively. In order for local units to exercise devolved responsibilities effectively, resources and resource raising powers need to be commensurate with responsibilities. The Conservative government’s devolution deals are being pursued in a context of even harsher projected public spending cuts. It is therefore difficult to avoid the cynical conclusion that devolution forms part of a broader agenda to transfer the responsibilities of managing cuts to lower government tiers, rather than a genuine attempt to construct a more decentralised political economy.

Exacerbating inequality

‘Devolution deals’ seem to involve a more fundamental shift of power away from central government than previous attempts at devolution. However, these deals are struck on a case by case basis. Some resource raising powers are on the table, but some regions receive more powers that others – leading to an asymmetric distribution of powers that could exacerbate existing inequalities. Even if these were uniformly devolved, the ability to capitalise upon these is likely to differ across city-regions.  It is also noteworthy that many of the policies that previously distributed the proceeds of the UK’s London and finance-centric economic model are being discontinued by the austerity agenda. Recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies makes it clear that measures such as the ‘Living Wage’, which is presented as mitigating these impacts, will do little to compensate for those at the cutting edge of these reforms. Compounded by the imbalance between the devolution of functions and resources noted above, heed should be taken of the possibility devolution to city regions serves as a model for the shrinking the welfare state.

Collaboration and co-ordination between regions and governance tiers

Devolution deals are concerned with arrangements for individual cities and city-regions. Beyond the aspiration for a larger collective contribution to national economic output, there is little focus on the relationships between regions and the impact on devolution deals upon the overall functioning of the economy. Because of this, analysts of devolution have raised the possibility that rather than leading to an “effective and coherent yet more locally autonomous system of government”, devolution policy in the UK might deliver “a disconnected set of governance fiefdoms pursuing more or less strategic ends with varying degrees of competence”.  A related likelihood is the devolution deal model will encourage competition over collaboration between city-regions. As economist James Meadway argues “by granting large cities more powers on the allocation of spending, but leaving the level of taxation, spending and borrowing under tight Treasury control, regions will be forced into competitions with each other to attract business expenditure and therefore extra tax revenues”. This could lead to a regulatory ‘race to the bottom’ that would substantially undermine the collective potential of city-regions to deliver improved economic and social outcomes.

In conclusion, a viable model for a more decentralised political economy should:

  • transfer ‘effective’ policy autonomy by providing adequate resourcing opportunities for devolved units;
  • reduce inequality within and between regions and social groups;
  • provide effective co-ordination between regions and governance tiers.

Although devolution deals are an emergent approach whose outcomes are not yet evident, the ad-hoc and case by case nature of the devolution deals, and the context of harsh public spending cuts within which they are taking place, are likely to lead to negative outcomes regarding the three areas above. It is therefore quite doubtful that devolution deals can constitute a viably generalisable model to deliver a more decentralised and effective political economy.

Adrian Bua is Research Assistant at the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity, as well as at the New Economics Foundation

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