Only devolution can end England’s democratic deficit

Too long, democracy has been taken for granted in England. 

While Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales saw their powers transferred from Westminster to be closer to the communities they serve in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, England has not seen any changes to its constitution and democratic structures.

Devolution, that is the transfer of decision-making powers, has often been an afterthought in England – too regularly framed as an issue affecting other parts of the UK.

Where devolution is discussed, it is too often driven by a need for efficiency and value for money – top-down reforms that put economic factors in the driving seat and give little consideration to where power lies and where decisions are best made. 


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These issues were vividly illustrated during the covid-19 pandemic, where the ability of communities in England to respond to the pandemic was hindered by Westminster’s ‘command and control’ approach.  

The image of metro mayor Andy Burnham suddenly discovering, during a press conference outside Manchester town hall, that Greater Manchester was being placed into a higher tier of covid restrictions in October 2020 perfectly demonstrated the current state of devolution in England – local leaders enjoy prominence and visibility, but in reality, almost all crucial decisions continue to be made in Westminster.

Despite their vital role during the pandemic, English local authorities continued to have limited power and influence over policymaking. 

The crisis has proven that the current settlement and the lack of local control over decisions in England are no longer appropriate. 

There is growing support from those working at the front lines of local government for shifting power away form Westminster to the communities all across the country. A survey of local authorities representatives by the ERS showed that 68% felt they did not have enough powers to represent the interests of their local communities. 70% of respondents also wanted decisions to be made in partnership between national and local government.

Today, the ERS release our new report – Democracy Made in England – calling for a new approach to local government that would allow areas to have genuine devolution, ending the democratic deficit that has plagued England for so long.

England remains one of the most centralised nations in Europe and only through a new relationship between the local and the national can we begin to address this historic imbalance – moving power, as well as economic resources, closer to the communities in which they are needed.

In the report, we set out proposals for how real devolution in England can be achieved – outlining the principles and values that should underpin a new devolution settlement which The decision-making process for how communities are managed is made by citizens, not Westminster.

New principles for devolution must respect and enhance local government’s democratic importance, replacing the technocratic and economically driven devolution strategies. Any devolution approach should include equal representation of different levels of government, democratic legitimacy, and subsidiarity.

The democratic importance of local government should be reflected in the values underpinning devolution – that of an empowered local government, the value of place and people’s affinity with their local area, and the engagement of citizens to ensure that any proposals for reform are built up from the local level and have the necessary support and legitimacy to make them work.

We must also radically change our approach to devolution. We also need to shift power between the local government and the national government and reform democracy in England.

Government should establish a clear framework for devolving power to local authorities – one that makes devolution the default position and is centred on a presumption in favour of democracy and local self-determination.

We must also address the effects of First Past the Post on local elections. England, outside London, continues to be the only part of the UK which does not use a fair voting system for any of its elections – an undemocratic anomaly in the 21st century. As used in Scotland, proportional representation for local elections would help to revive democracy at the local level. It would end the proliferation of one party states and single-party domination in council chambers and open up councils to a variety of voices. 

And those voices must have a place in Westminster too – local areas should be represented in the national arena and empowered to coordinate and work together with one another. An elected second chamber which allows for the fair and equal representation of the UK’s nations, regions and localities could play a crucial role in improving the central-local relations.

It is imperative that something is done to address the lack in democracy across England. This is a call to action that shows not only why but also how. HowIt is necessary to reform devolution within England.

The Levelling Up White Paper was released recently. This paper focuses on the England situation that has left many communities feeling marginalized. Now, it is up to us as citizens to ensure that democracy, representation and place are central to its implementation.

England needs to rediscover genuine local self-government – we need political leadership and commitment to deliver true democracy for England.