‘Frustrating and dispiriting’: Government has work to do to prove devolution commitment, think tank says

Report highlights frustration across UK local authorities at ‘reluctant’ attitudes to devolution in central government
Manchester. Photo: Commission Air/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

28 Jun 2022

The government has work to do to prove to local leaders that it is committed to devolution, a think tank has warned in a new report.

The report highlights local officials and politicians' “frustrating and dispiriting” experiences dealing with central government.

It says this has caused local government leaders to have an “instinctive skepticism” about devolution promises. The IfG said this reduces the chances of constructive cooperation between mayors and ministers and called on central government to “show that this time things will be different”.

The report, ‘How metro mayors can help level up England’, calls on the government to devolve fuller powers and greater flexibility over spending to metro mayors so that they can help level up England. 

This includes recommendations for the government to:

  • Devolve full responsibility for functions such as skills, transport and green infrastructure
  • Give metro mayors long-term, flexible funding to allocate in line with local need; and the formal right to request any power that has been devolved elsewhere in England
  • Commit not to reverse or amend the terms of devolution without local consent.

But for devolution to be accelerated, the IfG says there will also need to be an overhaul in the way the centre of government works and how it engages with mayors and other local leaders. 

Based on private conversations with national, local and devolved government officials and politicians, the report highlights concerns from local officials and politicians about central government’s dedication to devolution.

While the IfG said the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and minister Michael Gove “were broadly regarded as sincerely committed to making devolution work”, other parts of central government came in for criticism.

One experienced official told the IfG that “the attitude generally towards devolution in central government is reluctant” and several departments were singled out for criticism by officials and politicians in the report.

This included Manchester mayor Andy Burnham telling the IfG that the Department for Education “does not buy into” the devolution agenda and “sees things being decided top-down when it comes to education”.

There was also criticism of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (for “poor internal joining up), the Department of Work and Pensions (described as “the dead hand of government when it comes to local partnerships”) and for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (branded “pretty bad on the whole” in its engagement with devolution).

The Treasury was also criticised as being too interventionist, centralising and risk diverse, while the Department of Health and Social Care was accused of failing to recognise local government structures effectively.

The Department for Transport was described in positive terms for being “further in the devolution journey than any other department” but there was also criticism that the department “just delay decisions” if they disagree with a devolved proposal.

A government spokesperson said: “We are working across government to deliver on devolution.

“Our mission is clear – by 2030 every part of England that wishes to have a ‘London-style’ devolution deal will have one. This will put power into the hands of those best placed to make decisions for their area and supercharge growth across all regions.”

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