What is the Future for Devolution in England?

Hand drawn brush stroke flag of England. Creative national day hand painted brush illustration on white background

This blog is part of an IPPO series looking at how policymaking across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland has been shaped by devolution since 1999.

Janice Morphet

As the 25th anniversary of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is marked at the same time as 9 Combined Authority mayors are directly elected in England, with three more to come in 2025, this is a good time to reflect on the progress of devolution in England over the same period. Or rather to consider why there has been so little progress on legal and practical devolution in England, despite persistent government narratives to the contrary.

Leading up to 1999, devolution in England was not discussed in the same way as for the rest of the UK. Instead, Regional Chambers, known as Assemblies and Regional Development Agencies (RDAS) were introduced in 1998 in addition to the Government Offices of the Regions established in 1994. The Regional Assemblies had no powers or democratic mandate but rather an advisory role on a range of issues including strategic plans, transport and the environment. The RDAs were established by government to administer EU policies and structural funding in a way that was meant to appear quasi-democratic. In 2004, there was a referendum to establish a directly elected regional assembly in the North East but this failed. By 2010, all three regional structures were abolished and replaced by Local Enterprise Partnerships which took on the role of administering EU Cohesion policy at sub-regional level without any legal underpinning.

Combined Authorities (CAs) emerged in the last phase of the Labour government in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009  and conceptualised as corporate bodies with the potential for an increase in devolved powers. None were formally established until 2010 when the Coalition Government accepted a proposal from the Association of Greater Manchester  Authorities. The Combined Authority (CA) was established, followed by others, including that for the West Midlands in 2016. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016  included the provision of a directly elected mayor and since then, the government has introduced a scaffolding of tiers of CAs related to their institutional formation, with or without a directly elected mayor. While the narrative of devolution has been to the fore, each CA has been established through bespoke secondary legislation with different functions and competencies. The directly elected mayors have been given some budgets to manage through devolution deals although these are small in scope and volume. Local authorities are pursuing deals through the creation of CAs as an opportunity to access government funding for their areas in the continuing context of funding reductions and increased service pressures.

In the 2023 Budget, the government introduced Trailblazer Devolution Deals (TDD) for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands that included a small number of additional powers1 and the promise of a single financial settlement for their areas in the forthcoming Spending Review 2025. These TDD also provide access to ministers to discuss how to apply government policy in their areas and provide some flexibility in the application of the funding from the single settlement. However, there are also strings. The TDD operational structures are managed by senior civil servants through programme boards where they have the majority of places and report to the Treasury2. This reflects the centralised model which is already familiar to local authorities in the devolved administrations which all have these deals with Whitehall3. All CAs and local authorities will also be required to work within an accountability framework that was also announced at the same time4.

There has been no policy paper on devolution in England since 2010 and all the relationships have been constructed using deal frameworks. When the Mayor of Greater Manchester Combined Authority wanted to pursue a strategic spatial plan for the CA area, ‘Places for Everyone’, he had to use the powers of the constituent authorities acting as a joint committee in the 1972 Local Government Act5. In the COVID-19 pandemic, the CA mayors used their convening role to bring together Public Health Officers in their constituent authorities and their leadership role to argue for a post-pandemic economic strategy6. The additional functions included in the TDD appear ad hoc both in their format and in their application across all CAs. One proposed initiative is for the use of the Bus Service Operators Grant by the Mayor in the West Midlands CA and inclusion in national talks on reform of this grant together with the Mayor of Greater Manchester who has already been given access to this grant. However, this is not extended to the other CAs. Both West Midlands and Greater Manchester will be supported in their exploration to introduce integrated transport ticketing by 2030 but no further support is committed to implement any scheme.

There is also no evidence that Whitehall Departments consider the role of the CAs when developing their policies and legislation. Other than the specific functions for each CA as established through its foundational order and specific deal programme, there is no general requirement to consider the role of the CA mayors in any initiative. Even the Secretary of State for DLUHC, who is also the Minister for intergovernmental Relations, did not include any general provisions for CAs in his recent Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023, other than establishing a more detailed CA deal architecture across England. The Act included a statement of the Levelling Up missions which local authorities are required to pursue across the UK. The only consultation on the implementation of these missions included in the Act is with the DAs. The Act also provides for local authority functions to be transferred to the CA but not for those from central government.

Is this the sum total of devolution in England since 1999? Not quite. The devolution settlement in 1999 also created the Greater London Authority with a directly elected Mayor of London (MoL). The MoL has a range of specific powers as set out in the Greater London Authority Act 1999 and extended by the Greater London Authority Act 2007, including planning, Transport for London, EU funding when the UK was a member of the EU, fire, ambulance and emergency services. These are legal powers and not competencies or functions. Further, the GLA is legally established as a local authority so the MoL also has all the powers available to local authorities including for land and development. This means that the MoL is more equivalent to First Ministers in the DAs than the directly elected mayors in CAs, although not with all their powers.

One of the key issues that remains open in this devolution narrative is why CAs have not been given a firm basis in law apart from their structures or created on a local authority platform like the GLA. The 2009 Act gives the CAs the use of the general power of competence but there is nervousness about what this means. In the 2011 Localism Act s1-7, these powers are for matters outside the local authorities specific powers. How does this work when CA Mayors do not have powers, despite suggestions from government that they do? There may also be caution in the approach of government, assuming that constituent local authorities will not want their CA mayors to have powers. The LAs can loan their powers to their mayors, thus retaining some control over them. At the same time, those working in the CAs are increasingly comprised of seconded or former civil servants, with the focus of the mayors being directed towards the government and away from their constituent authorities7. How will this work if the constituent local authorities have the powers but the mayors are being given opportunities to make decisions with Whitehall within pressurised time frames?

Why has there not been more devolution in England? Does the answer lie in Whitehall rather than Westminster? The extension of subsidiarity in Article 5 of the EU Treaty gave pause for thought8 and a recognition that devolution in the UK  was a more fundamental change than had been anticipated. Devolution in 1999 was not reflected in the UK constitution and thus always capable of being changed by Parliament. The inclusion of the extended principle of subsidiarity in the Lisbon Treaty 2009 created a more fundamental constitutional reform through the primacy of this legislation in the UK. The subsequent government deal programme was a way of appearing to devolve funding and decision making across the UK but eventually would not have withstood legal or EU challenge. Whitehall departments would have been required to devolve policy, powers and funding in England and perceived as a direct threat.

The progress of devolution in England over the last 25 years has been cast through performative changes in institutional structures but no changes in devolved policy powers or funding control, which are regarded as essential components of devolution9. The extension of functions within the TDD CAs is small and primarily consultative. There is no evidence of a change to incorporate the CA Mayors in policy consultation as exists for the DAs. So what is the future for devolution in England? The Labour Opposition has indicated that it will introduce CAs in the DAs, so this appears to be a reinforcement of the current approach. Yet the Labour MoL has recently won a third term to run the GLA with a positive vote share. Do the mayors of the CAs in England want to have the same powers? This appears to be a dog that isn’t barking as Conan Doyle would say10.

  1. Sandford, M. (2023) Greater Manchester and West Midlands: Trailblazer devolution deals. House of Commons Library Research Briefing paper ↩︎
  2. HMT (2023) Memorandum of Understanding for the Single Settlements with Greater Manchester and West Midlands Combined Authorities ↩︎
  3. Morphet, J. (2022). Deals and devolution: The role of local authority deals in undermining devolved decision making. Local Economy37(7), 622-638. ↩︎
  4. DLUHC (2023) Devolution Accountability Framework ↩︎
  5. Places for Everyone (GMCA) (2024) ↩︎
  6. Kippin, S., & Morphet, J. (2023). Coordination, agenda-setting, and future planning: the role of Combined Authorities during the COVID-19 Pandemic. International Review of Public Policy. ↩︎
  7. Anderson, P. (2024) Making English Devolution Work: Mayoral Combined Authorities and Intergovernmental Relations. PSA Annual Conference Glasgow ↩︎
  8. Arribas, G. V., & Bourdin, D. (2012). What Does the Lisbon Treaty Change Regarding Subsidiarity within the EU Institutional Framework?. EIPAScope2012(2), 13-17. ↩︎
  9. OECD (2019), Making Decentralisation Work: A Handbook for Policy-Makers, OECD Multi-level Governance Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris ↩︎
  10. Conan Doyle, A. (1892)  The Adventure of Silver Blaze ↩︎