Words: Marianne Tambini (she/her)
Devolution is supposed to allow people from the different regions and nations of the UK greater choice over decisions that affect them. However, it is clear that there is still massive wealth inequality in the UK, and that at least some of that inequality is regionally dependent. The vastly lower life expectancy (associated, above all, with poverty) in Glasgow compared to other cities in the UK and Europe has come to be called the ‘Glasgow effect’. The question, then, is whether devolution is the best means to reduce this inequality?
Conservative Mayor for the West Midlands, Andy Street, has called for an end to the ‘begging bowl’ culture that currently denotes the relationship between local and central government. At the moment, central governments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set budgets for local governments, including provisions for how much is to be spent on, for example, adult social care and transport. Council tax and other fundraising is determined by councils themselves, but central government proposals often work on the assumption that councils will raise and spend funds in a certain way.
What Street means by a ‘begging bowl’ culture is the fact that local governments have to apply for additional funding out of a £2bn pot, competing with other local governments from across the UK. Street’s comments were part of an ongoing political conversation surrounding the devolved powers of the nations and regions of the UK, but it seems that the general consensus is for a broader distribution of power and responsibility. Both Labour and the Tories are now calling for greater devolution, especially fiscal devolution, with Jeremy Hunt suggesting trials of yearly budgets for local governments, who could decide for themselves what to spend it on.
Some recent work by local councils indicates that effective local government strategy can be transformative. In West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin is capping bus prices at £2, while in Salford and Preston, new economic approaches have made huge changes to housing and town centres. Closer to home in North Ayrshire, between 2017 and 2022, the council led some of the most ambitious social housing projects in Scotland, introduced publicly owned renewable energy, and established initiatives on period poverty, mental health and community building.
However, even if devolution leads to better outcomes within some regions, it’s not clear that it always leads to more equal outcomes between regions. Labour MP Bridget Phillipson once posed an interesting argument that devolving the provision of services too far risks further exacerbating inequality, with Tory combined authorities free to cut back or privatise services which are available in other areas. Architecture critic Owen Hatherley also pointed out that the resurgence of Mayors only further contributes to the assault on the work of local authorities by successive governments.
Hatherley notes that since Margaret Thatcher’s assaults on social housing, councils have lost most of their previous potential to introduce redistributive social policies, by depriving them of the income they would otherwise obtain through social rents. This has meant they have become inefficient, neglectful, and sometimes corrupt. Even when councils do have radical agendas, their work is limited by an extreme lack of funding. However, Hatherley urges that the potential of local government, which has been used to effect meaningful change in the past, should not be forgotten by its detractors, or by national political parties.
The risk of corruption in local government is often caricatured, but should not be underestimated. There is a trend towards establishing ‘freeports’, zones where regulations on customs, trade, tax, and public protection are relaxed or do not apply. Eight have already been set up in England, and the Scottish government is considering a further two. If the only rule is that there are no rules, and the goal is making as much money as possible, this represents an incredibly dangerous open door to systemic corruption and organised crime, and a slippery slope to greater deregulation and lower taxes on big business. There are also issues when it comes to limiting the powers of local government leaders, such as metro mayors. The London Assembly, for example, can do very little to meaningfully challenge Sadiq Khan.
One could even question the purpose of devolution altogether. Although Scotland is generally considered to have a different political landscape to England, the nations of the UK have not become havens of progressivism since 1997, because their powers are not always used. For example, most SNP budgets have a significant underspend. In addition, conversations around devolution tend to ignore Northern Ireland, a part of the UK which – because of its post-conflict nature – remains especially marginalised, even if better funded than other regions and nations.
However, I would argue that the reason devolution has not furthered redistributive justice is because the UK is still shackled by an overwhelmingly top-down political and economic culture. Recently, a clip emerged of Rishi Sunak talking to Tory activists in the well-off town of Tunbridge Wells. He criticised the formulas used for allocating local government funding, saying with disgust that those set up by previous Labour governments ‘shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas’. Obviously, his preference would be to continue depriving those areas of the means to live comfortable lives.
This made it clear that those at the top of Westminster government still see the allocation of funding to local governments as a means to satisfy their own political ends. It also suggests that Jeremy Hunt’s proposal of fiscal devolution is no solution, as it still relies on central government allocating funding, and is vulnerable to agenda-dependent fluctuations. Labour, meanwhile, recently released a plan for devolution and constitutional reform commissioned from Gordon Brown. It suggests that the four nations would form a new federal United Kingdom, and calls for a reassessment of the purpose of this union. However, it assumes that this union is functional, necessary, and desired, and loses credibility when considering that Labour still refuses to support a post-Brexit referendum on Scottish independence, and remain opaque on a border poll in Ireland.
Brown’s proposals do go some way to address the extreme imbalance of power inherent in the structures of government in the UK. However, his report presupposes that we’ve basically got it right already, and doesn’t go far enough in challenging power. Author of ‘New Model Island’ and ‘The North Will Rise Again’ Alex Niven suggests that such proposals would be almost impossible to implement given that the UK is ‘the most regionally unbalanced advanced economy in the world’. Niven instead suggests that for real, structural change to occur, the UK would need to break up further into independent states. This is a really radical proposal, and might be the only way to see a real redress of power imbalances.
The idea of devolution, if put forward in a radical way, demonstrates the potential for local governments involving everyone who wants to be heard, whether that be through consultation processes, routes to grassroots democracy, or better distribution of resources. Paul Dennett has written that his council’s work in Salford challenges ‘the assumption that nothing is achievable in local government without national political change’, and Joe Cullinane suggests that North Ayrshire council has shown ‘that local government can in fact lead to national change.’
Although real, radical devolution that reduces regional inequality takes hard work, the route to a fairer economy cannot be through centralised government. Regional autonomy and independence is the best way for people in all parts of the UK to get what they need.