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Don’t hold your breath for the devolution revolution

By Alison Gardner

The Smith Commission’s recommendations towards ‘devo-max’ for Scotland have dragged the question of English devolution out of Whitehall’s cupboard of forgotten political options and thrust it blinking into the political spotlight.  English local authorities have seized this opportunity to lobby Parliament to move beyond the Westminster-centric debate of ‘English votes for English laws’ and decentralise key powers and funding streams to local authorities.

In 2011, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, promised a public service revolution built around the principles of “localism”.  However, local government academics, Jones and Stewart, found that the subsequent 2011 Localism Act contained multiple centralising powers, particularly in respect to finance.  By 2013 the English local government funding system was declared to be “broken” and in need of fundamental overhaul.   So what are the prospects for the current localist movement to reach beyond technical reforms to overturn the existing pattern of central-local relations?  Are there now favourable conditions for a ‘localism revolution’?

A theoretical perspective on preconditions for revolution would suggest not.  Sociologist James DeFronzo identifies five critical factors as essential precursors to a radical change of order.  Although his theory relates to a different type of revolution – specifically mass-based movements acting in opposition to states – DeFronzo’s ideas have resonance for local devolution campaigners, highlighting important issues which remain unaddressed.

DeFronzo’s first criterion for revolution is “mass frustration”, often the product of a sudden drop in living standards.  Treating English local authorities as a functional equivalent of DeFronzo’s masses, “frustration” would be an apt epithet, with councils having endured a 37 % real terms cut in central government funding over the past five years whilst continuing to labour under more than 1000 statutory duties.

Devolution also provides a “unifying motivation” which cuts across different types and political stripes of councils.  A recent letter published in the Observer drew support from 119 councils, of all political persuasions, although their individual objectives in joining the bandwagon ranged from greater autonomy for large cities to increased opportunities for efficiency and rationalisation in Tory shires.

However, three crucial elements of DeFronzo’s conditions are missing from the pre-revolutionary landscape.  He emphasises the need for a “permissive world context” where surrounding powers are unwilling to contest change.  In this domestic situation, equivalent ‘permissions’ might be secured through political elites, but although there is growing support for concepts including  city regions or a ‘northern powerhouse’, academic Michael Keating highlights that no one in Westminster is seriously discussing federal redistribution of powers.

DeFronzo also identifies a role for dissident elites whose aims coincide with wider popular discontent.  Such dissidents are present: the campaign for greater devolution is now picking up support from diverse sources, including London Mayor Boris Johnson and an increasingly vocal cross-party lobby of MPs, led by Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Graham Allen MP, as well as prominent local politicians.

What is missing is the popular fervour which made itself so vociferously clear in the campaign for Scottish devolution.  Whilst BBC and IPPR polls show popular support for local devolution, there are few local or regional identities with the emotional traction or distinctiveness of the nationalist vision for an independent Scotland.  Opposition to local spending cuts provides a potential focal point, but the argument for greater localism as a buffer to austerity remains under-developed, and residents in more affluent localities have in any case been shielded from the worst elements of the cuts.

In addition, DeFronzo highlights the need for a “crisis” paralysing the coercive capabilities of the state before a revolutionary movement can take action.  Yet in spite of the challenges raised by the financial crisis and devolution, there has to date been no acute political crisis in England to which greater localism offers a definitive solution.

Meanwhile, though it may be over-dramatizing the analogy to suggest that English local authorities operate under conditions of coercion, they remain highly constrained by law, with limited freedom to test the benefits of devolution or build political support for rebalancing power. Councils’ capacity to raise funding is so closely controlled that the Council of Europe concluded the UK was in breach of the European Charter of Local Self- Government.  Political and management attention is also consumed in meeting austerity-induced budget shortfalls, leaving little time for potential advocates to champion constitutional reform.

Therefore, although crucial elements of the revolutionary jigsaw are in place, key pieces are missing, including an environment genuinely sympathetic to devolution, popular support and the opportunity, capacity and stamina to seize the initiative.  There may be ‘talk about a revolution’, but this present movement may lack the impetus to move beyond incremental reform.

Alison Gardner has been working in and around English local government for 18 years.  She is currently in the third year of a PhD at the University of Nottingham, researching responses to austerity in local public services. 

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published inBritish PoliticsPoliticsScotland

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