13 March 2023

England is late to the devolution party, but we’re finally catching up


It is one of the more extraordinary and long-term changes to the way we think about politics in this country in the last few years, but in less than a generation the benefits of devolution to England’s regions have become almost a settled political truth.

Everyone from the rightest of right-wing think tanks to the likes of Lisa Nandy, Labour’s Shadow Levelling Up Secretary, have become powerful advocates for handing power back to localities.

Getting the machinery of government to align with the will of all three main Westminster parties is, of course, a painfully slow process, but progress is being made.

And so today we hear confirmation of what most people in the know have expected for a good while: that significant new powers will be handed to the mayors of Greater Manchester and the West Midlands (Andy Burnham and Andy Street, respectively) in a ‘trailblazer’ for what’s become known as Devo Plus.

This is undoubtedly a good thing. Both Burnham and Street have done well in their jobs. They have respect both locally and in national government. They have both taken what could have been a political cul-de-sac, with little more than convening power, and built very real authority and local leadership.

Now, under the new settlements, which are apparently going to be confirmed in the Budget on Wednesday, each will be handed a much bigger package of policy and spending powers, worth more than £1bn. These included decision-making authority in areas such as post-16 skills, further education, transport and energy infrastructure.

There is no shortage of people who support this move. This country is in desperate need of more – and better – place-based industrial policy. This is the key to levelling up. For example, if you are determined that green technology (maybe a new battery factory) should be central to your vision for local economic differentiation, then it makes all sense to be able to prioritise training the local workforce to deliver it. This is a simplistic explanation, but in many ways it really is that simple. Getting this regional approach right is something our more successful competitors have been excelling at for decades.

But there is another reason for backing stronger, deeper devolution: it’s about self-determination, giving local people and local politicians the sense that they are taking back control, as Keir Starmer put it a few months ago.

The reason the phrase ‘left behind places’ took hold during the debate around the Red Wall and levelling up was not just that people in Bury, Blythe and the Black Country were being left behind economically, it was that they felt their concerns were being forgotten and their voices ignored.

This was a huge and damaging insult to local pride. In focus group after focus group, my firm Public First identified a sense that normal people were embarrassed that they were being done to, not with, and that as a result the city or town they called home had lost its civic pride and its civic drive. There is an unmistakable sense that people want local solutions for local problems.

If you spend enough time talking to people in Red Wall country you can begin to see how devolution (‘handing back control’) can, even in a fairly intangible sense, go a long way to restoring some of this sense of civic self worth: of owning both the problems and the solutions.

I have written a bit about this before in terms of Teesside, another region that has had a lot of focus on its devolved status. While most of the economic benefits of having its own regional mayor are yet to be felt (if indeed they ever will), what is unmistakable is that morale is enormously improved by the presence of a local mayor, Ben Houchen, who comes from the region, agitating and advocating on behalf of the area. Locals can praise him to his face when things go well, and blame him to his face when they go badly. This connection is important.

The same can certainly be said in the way Mancunians talk about Andy Burnham.

This is something else that our more successful competitors in Europe have recognised for a long time too: regional economic renaissance, and a rebuilt sense of civic pride, are two sides of the same coin.

And neither is possible without strong and accountable regional government. We might be late to the devolution party, but at least we’re now catching up.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Ed Dorrell is a Director at Public First.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.