Devolution that works
Labour's record in office
Labour is rightly proud of its record on devolution in government. Under the 1997 Labour Government:
- The Northern Ireland Assembly was set up in 1998, following the Good Friday Peace Agreement
- The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly (Senedd Cymru) were established in 1999
- The London Assembly and a directly elected mayor were established in 2000.
- The Local Government Act of 2000 established a range of options for the leadership of local councils, including directly elected mayors.
Read the Constitution Society's excellent explainer on devolution.
Resources from the Local Government Association
The project of devolution initiated by the 1997 government was not meaningfully progressed by successive Conservative administrations. Britain today is characterised by:
- A huge concentration of fiscal power at Westminster
- A mishmash of local and regional governance arrangements across England
- The devolved administrations arguably 'hoover up' power from local government (particularly in Scotland under the SNP).
As the All-Party Parliamentary Group on devolution noted in its 2020 report:
"The UK is one of the most fiscally centralised countries in the world .... [and] also has one of the most regionally unequal economies in the world. Greater devolution of responsibility for local economic growth has long been necessary, but it is now extremely urgent".
the brown commission
The report of the Brown Commission presents a suite of radical proposals for devolution. The report highlights the role of over-centralisation as a driver of economic stagnation and corruption.
"When we should be unleashing the potential for growth and opportunity in every part
of our country, the continuing over-concentration of power in Westminster and
Whitehall is undermining our ability to deliver growth and prosperity for the whole
Headlining with The Right Powers in the Right Places, the report outlines:
"Our starting point is a modern system of decision making that does not start from the top - but starts from the people and is grounded in new ways of consulting, participating, and deciding." (p8)
Duncan Enright writes:
There is a huge amount to welcome in the Brown Commission Report - it provides a compelling rationale for devolution, and a clear blueprint for an ambitious programme of political and fiscal decentralisation.
Much of the detail in the report remains to be negotiated, but the clear commitment by the party and its leadership to devolving power, responsibility and resources to local government is an important step.
I fully endorse the need for a debate about local revenue and capital raising powers; for a leading role in economic and social development for councils; for a long-term financial settlement with national government, and for more democratic means of electing local representatives. It is crucial that new respectful and constructive relationships be fostered between the parliaments and assemblies of Great Britain and the villages, towns and cities of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so that our communities can determine their own futures and invest in their own priorities.
In recent years, several councils have conducted interesting experiments with a number of deliberative mechanisms to involve citizens even further in the decisions that affect their lives, such as citizens' assemblies and people's juries. While these approaches have their limitations, including holding no mandate from the wider public, I am interested that further such innovative approaches should be explored, with the aim of rooting decisions in the communities they affect.
Democracy should be at the heart of everything we do. As LCER's lead on local government, I want to work with others to discuss how we might involve local democracy in areas of public, private and voluntary activity, but particularly in our public services, to make them more answerable and responsive to the needs of their local communities. Obvious examples currently outside the remit of local government are police, schools, universities and our NHS, but there are other areas of enterprise and activity where the local voice can best be heard through the megaphone of democratic representation.
Duncan Enright is Deputy Leader of the Labour and Co-operative party group and Cabinet Member for Travel & Development Strategy on Oxfordshire county council. He is a member of Labour's National Policy Forum, and LCER's spokesperson on local government.