Turbocharging devolution: boost or bust for democracy?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


From ‘street votes’ to ‘parish deals’, county councils to metro mayors, ‘devo-max’-style national governments to reforming the House of Lords, the UK is awash with new measures designed to enhance devolution and localism as a counter to ‘gross over-centralisation’. When Keir Starmer said a Labour government would empower communities to ‘take back control’, some commentators decried it as cynical repurposing of that renowned Brexit slogan. But in reality, parties of all colours now proclaim the need to ‘turbocharge’ devolution as the means to revitalise democracy.

Critics of centralisation seem to have a point. County, city and local authorities operate at the behest of Whitehall and a national ‘one size fits all’ approach. This often leaves local leaders without the powers and investment to direct funds and strategies to meet local needs. Legislation with enormous impact, for example on migration, can be determined by unelected Lords, with seemingly little thought to the towns and cities under pressure to house new arrivals. With England now the one UK country lacking its own devolved government, new decision-making powers at local level on employment support, transport, housing, culture or childcare provision appear to make sense.

But if devolution pushes power closer to the people, to what extent are people now in control? While place-based approaches seem commonsensical, do they simply add more bureaucracy or become a trojan horse for new elites? After all, measures such as low-traffic neighbourhoods and ultra-low emissions zones are led by experts – who often ignore the results of consultations with residents and businesses. Private-public collaborations such as Local Enterprise Partnerships hand over power to business and unelected ‘public’ appointees. Meanwhile, devolved national parliaments arguably reinforce technocratic power, implementing for example, restrictions on lifestyle choices or, in the notable case of the Scottish Government’s Gender Recognition Act, measures that most Scots opposed.

Is there a means to ensure that new mechanisms of local democracy – from public consultations to local partnerships to devo-max governments – help to expand local control? With the Northern Ireland Assembly paralysed and the SNP-led Holyrood government imploding, are opponents of devolution right to argue it should be reversed? And where does the citizen figure in the new devolved world? At a time of disenchantment with citizenship, can there ever be a serious level of cultural support for democracy and commitment to engage with the demos?

Niall Crowley
designer; writer; former East End pub landlord

Dolan Cummings
author, Taking Conscience Seriously and The Pictish Princess.. and other stories from before there was a Scotland

Frank McKenna
group chairman & chief executive, Downtown in Business; former leader, North-West Regional Assembly; business programme host, City Talks radio

Jo Phillips
journalist; co-author, Why Vote? and Why Join a Trade Union?; former political advisor; fellow, Radix

Dr Dan Robinson
director of research, Pharos Foundation; author, Natural and Necessary Unions: Britain, Europe, and the Scottish Question

Alastair Donald
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom; author, Letter on Liberty: The Scottish Question