Making the most of the devolution revolution

In his budget statement last week, the Chancellor spoke again of a ‘devolution revolution’. Other areas beyond Greater Manchester will receive new powers and responsibilities previously held in Whitehall. Agreements with Sheffield, Cornwall and Yorkshire are underway, with more to follow. It can be hard to keep abreast of these developments, as each agreement contains a unique pattern of policies to be devolved, resulting in varying degrees of local control. We are supposed to see the agreements as great successes, but with little sense of what it all amounts to.

What is devolution for? New Economics Foundation (NEF) has been working with the Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield to map the arguments made for devolution, in order to address this crucial question.

We recently released the findings of this research which can be found here. A summary is shown in Figure 1 (click on the image to enlarge)


Advocates of devolution point to economic growth as the main motivation, above all other concerns. On average, just under half of all arguments for devolution refer to its role in creating economic growth. Improving the effectiveness of public services came second with 23.7% of arguments, and strengthening democracy third at 12.9%.

From the perspective of central government departments, local governments and think-tanks alike the focus is economic growth. Creating growth in parts of the country which have struggled economically is a laudable ambition, and one that merits discussion, but it also matters how growth is discussed and what it is taken to mean.

We found that economic growth arguments are weak on explaining how growth would be achieved and focus primarily on benefits to the national purse. How income-to-cost-of-living ratios, which affect everyone’s day to day economic reality, would be affected by devolution is seldom mentioned. Reducing poverty through economic growth is mentioned only four times in a total of 1,129 arguments. Numbers of jobs created are discussed far more than the quality of jobs.

Devolving economic powers over skills, housing, business rates and enterprise could in theory improve how the local economy works for its residents and local stakeholders. Yet the current focus pays little attention to how devolution would improve the lives of local people.

A s Figure 2 shows (click on the image to enlarge) Creating a more democratic country seems an obvious aim for devolution but in fact is neglected by advocates of devolution, particularly advocates in local government.


On average local governments refer to strengthening democracy in only 9% of the arguments they make for devolving power. They neglect the expanded role citizens could play in decision-making if decisions are made closer to home and rarely discuss the ways in which devolution could increase the accountability of elected leaders to the public. Simply creating elected mayors is not enough to revive an ailing democracy. This is why local governments should also be considering the mechanisms for citizen participation which could make devolution worthwhile.

One change could make all the difference as the devolution revolution progresses. This is to bring the debate into the open for public discussion, locally and nationally, so that everyday economic concerns feature strongly in discussion of economic growth and establish a model for more accountable, deliberative democracy. The debate has so far been conducted in the backrooms of Westminster rather than in public forums.

Several parties in government have proposed a Constitutional Convention, but are yet to act on the proposal. The convention model is a citizen forum bringing together a representative sample of people to discuss changes underway in the governance of the country. In the meantime, a group of academics and civil society groups have piloted this model in Sheffield and Southampton, showing how it would work. Drawing on examples from countries including Iceland, Canada, the Netherlands and Scotland, they show that the direct participation of local people in decision-making improves not only the democratic quality of decisions, but their effectiveness. It’s a match made in heaven for the devolution revolution.

‘The briefing Democracy: the missing link in the devolution debate’ is available for download from New Economics Foundation website here.

This post was originally published on the University of Sheffield’s Crick Centre Webpage

Sarah Lyall is a researcher and policy analyst at the New Economics Foundation. She tweets @sarahglyall and @nefSocialPolicy.