'Patchwork and opaque' governance in England needs reform, MPs say

PACAC criticises “instinct in Whitehall to maintain control of the levers of power and the purse strings”
The Levelling Up Fund, part of the “ubiquitous system” of bidding for pots of cash, was criticised for prioritising Rishi Sunak’s North Yorkshire constituency of Richmond for funding. Photo: Amanda Slater/Flickr

MPs have called for a cross-party commission to develop a “sustainable, long-term solution” to fix the “patchwork” and over-centralised system of governance in England.

England’s overly complex and opaque governance structure makes it harder for people to access services and hold political leaders to account and is in urgent need of comprehensive reform, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said in a report today.

PACAC said in particular that the UK government “wields too much power” in England, with civil servants’ instinct to control funds and unwillingness to let go of powers causing citizens to “lose out on the benefits of having policies adapted to local areas and needs”.

“It is clear from our evidence that the current funding structures for local government and combined authorities reflects the instinct in Whitehall to maintain control of the levers of power and the purse strings,” the report said.

There is a “ubiquitous system” of local leaders bidding for pots of money, which is a “wasteful” use of resources that could be deployed more effectively and must end, the MPs said.

Distribution of this funding has been controversial,  with suggestions that the choice of places invited to bid for the £3.6bn Towns Fund were “politically motivated”, and MPs calling the process for awarding funding in the £1.7bn first round of the Levelling Up Fund "unsatisfactory".

Today's PACAC report also highlighted the difficulties of navigating local and national governance arrangements, saying “even those working within the different parts of local government are not always clear on how the system works, where decisions are made, where accountability lies, and consequently how policies and services can be adapted to the needs of local areas and local people”.

The system is doubly opaque to citizens and therefore makes it harder for people to access what they need from government and hold their democratic representatives to account, the report said.

“When the government has talked about its ‘devolution agenda’ or ‘devolution deals’, these have been about decentralising functions, policy and operational delivery, and associated funding, from Whitehall to local government, rather than devolving whole areas of competency and block funding away from the UK parliament and government, as is the case with the devolved nations,” it added.

While there is a clear “intermediate” tier of devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a local government structure sitting beneath this tier, “no corresponding devolution has taken place within England, nor does it appear to be envisaged by the levelling up white paper”, the report said.

The government’s levelling up white paper, acknowledged “fragmentation and administrative complexity” in the governance system and that the “patchwork of local administrative bodies across the UK… often overlap and are complicated to navigate”.

It promised to improve and simplify the system with a series of reforms, including providing areas with more powers and funding flexibility; and devolution deals tailored to each area.

But PACAC said the proposals would make the system more complex and opaque because they “are not being applied to a blank canvas” but imposed on top of existing complexity.

They would also leave “significant decision-making power in Whitehall, not town halls” and do little to improve accountability, the committee said.

The plans set out in the white paper are “not sufficient” to address the concerns it raises, the MPs said.

They also said previous attempts at reform in this area have been “piecemeal and uncoordinated”.

To ensure any future attempt is successful and avoids being “another short term and partial measure”, PACAC said “a vision of where England will end up needs to be clearly articulated, on a cross-party basis and at all levels, to get sufficient political acceptance from the people necessary for its implementation to guarantee long-term delivery”.

The report is the third to be pubished as part of an inquiry that began two years ago to examine devolution in England. Over the course of its inquiry, the committee said it “quickly became clear that there was a need to look more broadly at the overall governance arrangements” for the nation.

The report also calls on the government to give more thought to how coastal and rural areas can be given the same opportunities to grow as metropolitan areas; and to ensure “proper consideration” is given to the interests of England and its individual regions in UK policymaking.

A DLUHC spokesperson said: “We are already putting power into the hands of those who know their communities best as we bring forward the largest devolution of power from Whitehall to local leaders across England in modern times.

“Strong local leadership that understands an area and seizes the opportunities open to it is critical to levelling up.

“Mayors are already playing a key role as ambassadors for their areas and locally-led government reforms can create strong and accountable local institutions.” 

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