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Could involving citizens help unlock true English Devolution?

Published on

24 Nov 2023


There is a major democratic deficit in England — people feel that they have no influence over our future, and that those that do aren’t making the right decisions.

English Devolution could provide one way to help tackle this deficit, but there are risks that it either won’t get delivered without local public involvement, or won’t significantly improve democratic engagement and accountability. Participatory and deliberative processes could help tackle both these risks, helping to better deliver English Devolution and ensure it would tackle the current democratic deficit through greater and better involvement of citizens. When given the authority, evidence and time, people in communities across the country can help take on difficult questions, side-step political divides, and deliver sensible answers to the big challenges we face. And, in doing so, build a democracy fit for the 21st century.

Over the next 6 months, we’ll be doing just that — figuring out how putting citizens at the heart of English Devolution can help clear this major block on how decisions can be made fairly and effectively across our country.

There is a democratic deficit in England

Half (47%) of people in the UK believe they have no influence over decision making. Most believe the current political system does not understand them. People in England in particular do not feel political and social change is possible. In particular, they feel their participation in political processes is unlikely to bring about change. And, people’s lack of power and trust is not uniform — those furthest from power understandably have the least trust in the current system.

The fact that people in England feel this way is a major concern for the democratic legitimacy of our politics. Local election turnout in England is also low — part of a recognised ‘accountability deficit’ in England. Average turnout in local elections across the UK has never risen above 50% in the last half century, and is consistently lower than in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and other European countries. Not only is turnout low, but understanding of and trust in local government is lacking, with a limited role for local voice and civic engagement in many key institutions. When considered alongside the multiple kinds of poverty and a lack of social infrastructure experienced by so many, it paints a challenging picture.

Most agree, more devolution in England could help. So, why isn’t it getting done?

English Devolution — the transfer of powers and funding from national institutions, to regional and local ones — is one opportunity to tackle this democratic deficit. With current plans to have devolution deals cover all of England by 2030, and both major Parties politically committed to English Devolution, there is a rare consensus on its need. Devolution is a priority for both major political parties, as we prepare for a likely General Election in 2024; both have set their sights on ‘completing the map’ of English devolution by 2030 at the latest. The Labour Party — who are 15-20% ahead in the polls — believe that devolution in England is one of the major routes to achieving their top priority of economic growth. Given Labour’s commitment not to significantly increase spending, and focus on ‘reform and create wealth’, devolution of powers to ‘unleash’ new economic potential is one of a limited number of policy levers the Labour Party could pull in government.

Despite this political support, the current approach risks (a) failing to deliver comprehensive English Devolution and (b) failing to ensure English Devolution tackles the existing democratic deficit. There is little role for local people in the forming of devolution deals. These deals are almost entirely agreed by local and national political leaders. There is a lack of understanding on how better inclusion of local residents could lead to deals being made more quickly and effectively. For example, neither of the two seminal documents for the Conservative and Labour Parties on this issue — the Levelling Up White Paper and Gordon Brown’s Constitutional Review — talk about the role of public participation and deliberation in English Devolution in any substantial fashion.

How can putting the public at the heart of English Devolution help?

We believe that participatory and deliberative processes could help tackle both these risks, helping to realise the effective delivery of English Devolution and tackling the current democratic deficit through greater and better involvement of citizens.

Working with the public to help deliver devolution deals

Why do we think this? Take Cornwall’s recent failed attempt at striking a devolution deal as an example. Poor public engagement is one key reason Cornwall is without a major devolution deal. 69% of respondents to an open consultation were opposed to proposals for devolution, leading the council leader who negotiated the deal to reject it with “the greatest regret”. However, the consultation also included a representative survey which found 65% of residents would support the deal, with only 16% opposed, suggesting that respondents to the consultation may not have been representative. This led to Cornwall missing out on greater powers to make decisions in the region and £360 million in additional investment.

Cornwall Public Consultation on support for a Devolution Deal
 % Agree% Disagree
Consultation Questionnaire25% 69% 
Representative Survey 65% 16%

This raises the question — could a better approach to engaging the public have helped a deal progress?

Working with the public to help tackle the democratic deficit, and build the democracy we need for the 21st century.

Beyond forming the deal itself, the way in which power and resources are devolved matters too. To build a vibrant democracy where everyone can play a role in shaping the future we need, we cannot simply move decisions from Westminster to City Hall. We need to harness the ideas, energy and experience of people in communities across the country to tackle the big challenges we face and, in doing so, unlocking a fairer and more effective way to set a course for the future.

This new approach is increasingly being used across England, to great effect. From citizens’ panels to determine how to achieve net zero with West Midlands Combined Authority, to Camden Council running a citizens’ assembly to form a plan for the future of its internationally renowned night-time economySouth Yorkshire’s citizens’ assembly on how to set a vibrant and sustainable future for the region, or working with people in the North of Tyne region to understand how private investors can better support communities. These approaches hold the key to how English Devolution can put citizens at its heart, and tackle the democratic deficit that exists in England.

We are working up proposals by March 2024 — get in touch!

Our project will develop a set of proposals for how participatory and deliberative processes could help to better deliver English Devolution and ensure it would tackle the current democratic deficit through greater and better involvement of citizens. 

We know there a great number of organisations who do good work in this area, including think tanks and policymakers such as Local Trust, New Local, Institute for Government, Onward and IPPR North, key academic institutions such as Heseltine Institute for Public Policy at Liverpool, The Productivity Institute, University of Manchester and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy in Cambridge, through to local, regional and national governments looking to implement these ideas. We will be in touch to see how our thinking can add to theirs as part of this work.

Maddie and I are leading on this work, so feel free to get in touch with either of us. Or, if you’d like to hear more about this work, or share your view, please get in touch here. Otherwise, watch this space…