England is chronically over-centralised, governed by an incoherent tangle of institutions, and suffers from a “democratic deficit” as a result – all of which jeopardises plans for English devolution, according to a new report drawing on data from across the UK and Europe.
Consensus for devolution – the transfer of power from central government to local leaders – continues to grow: Sunak’s government offers “trailblazer” deals with mayors, while the Labour-commissioned Brown review set out extensive plans to give power to communities.
Political scientists from Cambridge University, working with the Institute for Government, are calling for cross-party commitments to “meaningful devolution” in every corner of England by 2030, but say that major changes are needed in central government if they are to be achieved.
These include a new Whitehall department, the Office for England – complete with Secretary of State – along with an “English Devolution Council” to give metro mayors a strong voice in British politics, and new legislation to “codify” the rights and responsibilities of local government.
The report argues that the “deeply ingrained habit of conflating England and the UK” at the heart of British government needs to end if England is to reboot local democratic and economic growth.
“England is one of the most centrally governed countries in the developed world, yet the nature of its administration is a source of confusion and frustration to its citizens,” said report co-author Prof Michael Kenny from the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy.
“There is palpable disillusionment with the grip of the London-centric UK government, especially when you travel further away from Westminster,” said Kenny. “This has created a powerful current of democratic disenchantment.”
“There is a strong case for a new Office for England along with a cabinet committee, to bring greater cohesion to English governance within Whitehall, and oversee long-promised devolution.”
The report reveals how decades of central “policy churn” directed at England’s regions and services have created a morass of clashing borders between NHS care boards, education commissions, local authorities and policing jurisdictions, to name but a few.
Even clearly interdependent services have conflicting boundaries, such as policing with the NHS or fire and rescue, or environment agencies with forestry commissions.