English Devolution Has Started But Must Go Further

(Photo: Queen Mary University of London)

By Owen Buchan – Contributor

The current polity of the UK rests on a single national parliament and three major devolved bodies. These three devolved bodies are the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly respectively. Yet absent, is a singular devolved body for the entirety of England, although there is devolution in London, which has an elected assembly and Mayor. Despite a major setback in 2004, English devolution has evolved to encompass 8 city-regions located around England each with a directly elected “metro-mayor”. These devolved institutions are a good start for English devolution and should be celebrated as an achievement in their own right. Yet, these institutions are not as effective or powerful as the ones in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Therefore, there is clear room for English devolution to continue to expand and improve. This devolution will not be as singular as a parliament or assembly but will be fractured and built on the regional based institutions already present.

English Devolution has been a new project, but its origins started in London and under New Labour. The first major accomplishment was in London, in 1999. Prior to 1999, there was some devolution in London under the Greater London Council (GLC), that existed 1965 to 1986. The GLC had minimal control over areas like transportation and social housing in London. They did see some success in areas like public housing, such as with the creation of the Thamesmead Estate in Abby Wood. The last few years of the GLC saw it dominated by Labour under the leadership of Ken Livingston or “Red Ken”, as dubbed by the press. Under Ken, so-called “looney left-wing” policies such as representative committees for marginalized groups were created. Yet as they became more vocal critics of Thatcherism, they sowed their own demise. As promised under the Conservative manifesto in 1983, the GLC was abolished for being “a wasteful and unnecessary tier of government”.

Then in 1998, the people of London were offered in a referendum by New Labour and the chance to have a devolved power returned to London. The results were decisive, with 72% of voters supporting the proposal of a Greater London Authority, with an elected Mayor and a separately elected assembly. Admittedly, turnout for this referendum was low, at just over one-third of eligible voters voting but from this, the people of London have had democracy enhanced greatly since 2000. Londoners have had the privilege of electing a Mayor and an assembly purely designed to deal with London’s unique issues.  Therefore, devolution in London has increased representation for around 9 million people, which has proved successful. Yet not everyone in England lives in London, or faces the same issues but London proves English devolution, even under the constraints of a heavily urbanised and dense setting, can be successful.

However, not all attempts at English Devolution have been successful. A bold move was made in 2004 to create an elected regional assembly for the North East of England, again through a referendum. This idea was the dream of then deputy PM John Prescott, an MP for the North East himself. This potential assembly was soundly rejected with 77.93% voting against it, with a turnout of 47.8%. The reasons for rejection were ultimately complex, but fears that the assembly would become a “talking shop”, as well as a general lack of faith that political institutions could affect people’s lives were among some of the prime reasons for such a decisive no vote. From this, we can see that a devolved assembly is not something that we can just drop into England, it’s something that needs to be created more organically. English devolution will have to be more regional and on a smaller scale.

Ex-chancellor George Osborne realised this and continued to push aspects of English devolution in primarily the North of England. Part of Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” policy saw the creation of 8 city regions, which are the combination of local neighbouring authorities, which are led directly by an elected Metro Mayor. Currently, 12 million people in England are represented by one of these eight Metro Mayors. These combined authorities lead by a Mayor are able to access pooled resources and funding to tackle area specific issues, because the needs of Greater Manchester, the largest of the 8 combined authorities, are very different from the needs of Tees Valley; the smallest of the 8 authorities. Overall, the policy has been very successful and shows ultimately that the ‘one size fits all’ approach of a singular devolved body is not the way forward. England is too economically and socially diverse for a singular English parliament. Instead, a wider expansion of Metro-Mayors could be a viable short-term objective for English devolution.  A more longer-term goal could see the eventual creation of multiple English assemblies, each with the same power or region-specific powers

Ultimately, a singular English parliament should not be the end goal of English devolution. As people correctly point out, with 533 out of the 650 seats in Westminster being English MPs, Parliament could be seen as an already English Parliament. Yet, despite this, Parliament is unable to reach out to local English communities like the Scottish Parliament can for the Scottish people. Westminster is too busy running the UK to worry about just England and this has helped give rise to phenomenon of the “left behind voter” in England. Further English devolution will help to bring democracy closer to wide array of people in England and help to revitalise at least English interest in politics. There is a framework to build from. London devolution has been a success and metro mayors are a system that can and have been added to. If Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can have more local representation, can’t we have this in England?

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