England & Wales Brexit, Democracy, devolution and governance

Devolution is more important now than ever, but what are its prospects?


Ahead of Greg Clark’s speech to the Local Government APPG Summer Reception this evening, Andrew Walker looks at the post-Brexit prospects for devolution.


After the momentous decision taken in the EU referendum on the 23rd of June, there is a great deal for local government to digest and to prepare for, not least the prospects for devolution.

The reasons behind the referendum result were legion, but a profound disconnection of central government and mainstream politics from the lived experiences of people in different parts of the UK was undoubtedly a contributing factor.

Indeed, there is a firm case for rejuvenated leadership in our politics and our decision making, which has been bolstered over the past few weeks (and not just because of the EU referendum). Last year Simon Jenkins called for a political parties to give a more prominent role to local leaders, a shift that we may be beginning to see take place as a number of prominent MPs have indicated their desire to stand as city mayors next year. Alternatively, we may have reached the point at which a new, strong, individual leader can no longer cut it without new organisational, constitutional and democratic forms also in place.

Whether a devolution settlement 10 years ago would have led to a significantly different referendum result is perhaps a counterfactual for the academics to ponder, but following the events of the past few weeks, the lack of leadership in central government, alarming social cleavages opening up across the country, and complex constitutional implications to be worked out, a reconfiguration of political power throughout the country is arguably more essential now than ever.

It was heartening, therefore, that Greg Clark assured delegates at the Local Government Association Conference last week that he is still committed to devolution post-Brexit. He said:

“While some Westminster politicians can give a good impression of losing their heads and blaming it on everyone else, that doesn’t wash in local government”

The programme is going ahead, in one form or another, in areas like East Anglia. But local government could be forgiven for harbouring concerns for its overall prospects. It is George Osbourne who has for so long been the driving force behind devolution and his political future is now by no means certain. This leaves a big question mark over who will spearhead it in the future. In his speech, Clark elucidated the precariousness of the position quite well:

“Does everyone in government and Whitehall share my enthusiasm to devolve? To be candid, no.”

The government’s current plan is also predicated on future economic growth, with retention of business rates the key mechanism to achieve it. Even prior to Brexit, some called into question whether rates alone would be sufficient to incentivise local economic activity. Post-Brexit, we are yet to see how the government will pursue its Northern Powerhouse agenda, whether a new funding settlement will be devised, and how already hard-hit local services will be geared up for the ensuing change.

There are also concerns over the benefits of devolution for county and non-metropolitan areas. LGiU recently held a roundtable discussion with council chief executives to investigate how non-metropolitan devolution could be worked out in the future. A summary of that discussion and potential next steps will be published shortly.

We look forward to hearing what Clark has to say this evening. Over the coming weeks, months and years, we will continue to work closely with our members, partners, and friends in local government to help navigate the changing circumstances to come.