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We need a new approach to devolution when we rebuild the post-Covid economy

3 min read

The APPG on Devolution is calling for an English devolution taskforce to define a new ‘baseline’ of powers available to every local council.

Whitehall and Parliament need to focus on the genuinely national and strategic, whilst councils focus on being leaders of place. We are used to warm words on devolution but, too often, the reality has lagged behind the rhetoric. The pandemic shows that local government can be trusted to deliver.

Across a whole range of challenges, from improving health outcomes, to supporting people to retrain and secure their next job, from building local economies of the future, to creating the places we are proud to call home; putting power and resources in the hands of democratically elected local leaders delivers better outcomes and gives communities a greater opportunity to shape the future of their local areas. As we look to rebuild the economy and level up the country, the time for a new approach to devolution is now.

The APPG on Devolution has conducted a major inquiry into how central government can work more effectively to devolve powers to local areas so that every community can exercise more power over the issues that affect them, and so that the whole country can reap the benefits.

Andy Burnham, Greg Clark, Bronwen Maddox, Lord O’Neill and Steve Reed are among the many highly eminent contributors to the Report. Ironically, the debate about devolution has been dominated by central government for too long. Westminster and Whitehall has set the pace and limited the scope of transferring powers, resources and decision-making to local authorities. In some parts of England the creation of metro mayors has begun to deliver real benefits, but too much of the country has been put in the devolution slow lane.

The response to the Covid has demonstrated the value of local democratic leadership. Councils have been more flexible, effective and responsive than many aspects of the central government response. Local leaders have demonstrated that big national challenges need place-based responses.

Local authorities must have the powers to support the recovery according to the needs of their own area

Our Inquiry found that the UK’s centralised state holds back economic growth and means that even when the economy grows overall, many areas are left behind. The UK is one of the most fiscally centralised countries in the world. The UK 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. Local authorities must have the powers to support the recovery according to the needs of their own area. Delivering economic recovery and levelling up the country demands that we turbocharge devolution and move away from a centralised model of governance where Whitehall is overburdened, and local areas are underpowered.

Effective devolution has been held back by both constitution and culture. The UK is currently one of the most centralised of any advanced democracy. Virtually all British governments claim to be in favour of devolution and localism, but the actual appetite for ‘allowing’ power and decision making to reside at a local level is much more variable. Despite its long history, English local government is not always treated with due respect in Westminster or Whitehall.

It is time for a new approach. We must jointly create a new way forward, co-produced by national and local government. The Devolution APPG’s report calls for an English devolution taskforce, co-chaired by a Cabinet Minister and a Council Leader to work together and define a new ‘baseline’ of powers available to every local council.

Working together we can improve public services and rebuild the economy.


Andrew Lewer is the Conservative MP for Northampton South.

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