Devolution offers real opportunities – but it will falter without clearer central government guidance

Written by Dr Sarah Ayres on 9 March 2016 in Opinion

The devolution agenda is characterised by a high degree of "informal governance" – but a lack of guidance and procedure from Whitehall could lead to scepticism from councillors and the public

Devolution from Whitehall to English cities is not sustainable without greater transparency and legitimacy in decision making – that is the conclusion of the Political Studies Association’s Research Commission, set up to examine the role of "informal governance" on devolution to England’s cities. 

Our report offers some reflections on the process of decision-making around the devolution deals to date. It draws on the shared learning and experiences of key actors involved to identify elements that have worked well and also potential areas for improvement. It concludes that the devolution agenda offers a real opportunity to empower local areas, boost economic productivity and improve public services. Yet, there is a danger that the initiative will falter in the absence of greater clarity around process and enhanced local ownership of decision-making.

The UK has long been regarded as one of the most centralised states in Europe. Yet, since the Scottish Referendum and the election of a Conservative government in May 2015, the devolution agenda in England has moved forward at a rapid pace. It offers a real opportunity to significantly transform the way England is governed. There is energy and momentum behind English devolution that has the potential to address growing public concerns about the governance of England in a devolved United Kingdom. Central government proposals for devolution have been met largely with enthusiasm from local areas and there is a firm commitment in parts of government to see the devolution of power in core policy areas such as transport, economic development and regeneration and public service reform.

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However, the devolution agenda, and more specifically the process of negotiating the recent round of devolution deals, is characterised by a high degree of "informal governance". Informal governance can be defined as a means of decision-making that is un-codified, non-institutional and where social relationships and webs of influence play crucial roles. 

The issue of informality in policy making is particularly timely as global nations and cities seek to manage multifaceted policy problems within contested, complex and uncertain environments. This development has prompted a new style of political leadership – one that relies less on bureaucracy and formal structures and more on networks and informal relations. However, informal governance raises important questions about effectiveness and transparency in policymaking. On the one hand it can lead to greater efficiency through more timely and streamlined decision making, based on high trust relationships. On the other, it may weaken transparency, accountability and legitimacy by undermining traditional (more formal) administrative structures.

Informal governance is everywhere in policymaking but the devolution agenda is characterised by a particularly high degree of informal governance. The fact that guidance and procedure are absent generates scepticism and suspicion from some participants, councillors, and the public. This could damage the democratic legitimacy, and hence the sustainability, of the policy. The UK government is embarking on fundamental constitutional change driven largely by informal ways of working. While there are undoubtedly benefits to more informal and fluid governance arrangements, there is a danger that devolution could be undermined if key actors and the public feel disenfranchised by and disconnected from the process. More specifically, the commission makes the following key recommendations:

  • Procedures for making decisions about devolution deals need to be more open and transparent. There is a need for ‘light touch’ guidance on central government objectives; the policy areas that might be included in the deals; the characteristics of a successful bid; the ways implementation might be monitored; and the central and local government expectations for consultation and engagement.
  • The government needs to better articulate the benefits of a combined authority and metro mayor if broad support for this element is to be garnered.
  • HM Treasury needs to stay involved in the implementation of devolution deals to ensure that the commitment to and momentum behind the deals remain.
  • There needs to be more emphasis on sharing good practice about how deals are negotiated across Whitehall departments and local areas to promote policy experimentation, learning and innovation.
  • Combined authorities need to move quickly to drive public engagement and wider stakeholder collaboration in implementation.

The Commission’s findings and recommendations are consistent with other recent evaluations of the devolution deal process. For example, the Communities and Local Government committee's Devolution: the next five years and beyond identifies concerns about the pace of the devolution agenda, a lack of rigour in procedures and concerns over public engagement and consultation. The IPPR's Empowering Counties: Unlocking county devolution deals calls for greater clarity on the purpose, process and timescale for devolution. Moreover, the Institute for Government's Making devolution deals work offers guidance and a check list on how to make effective devolution deals. Our findings seek to contribute to this debate and to offer critical reflections on how to develop and improve plans for devolution in the future.

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Dr Sarah Ayres
About the author

Dr Sarah Ayres is chair of the Political Studies Research Commission to examine the role of "informal governance" on devolution to England’s cities. She has worked alongside commissioners Paul Buddery of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce; Dr Jo Casebourne of the Institute for Government; Tessa Coombes of the University of Bristol; Ed Cox of the Institute for Public Policy Research; and Mark Sandford of the House of Commons Library

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