England & Wales, Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

Reflections on a prospective Scottish ‘devolution journey’


Image by Arvid Olson from Pixabay

It is too easy, especially for commentators south of the border, to limit thoughts on devolution in Scotland during the remainder of the decade to the passing of the Scotland Bill 2015-16; its consequences of increased powers for the Scottish Parliament; and subsequent implications of the 2016 Scottish elections and the EU in-out referendum.

My briefing Lessons and issues of England’s ‘devolution deals’ for Scottish local government and for Scotland – ‘Northern Powerhouse’ relations argues this would be a mistake.

The Glasgow and Clyde Valley City Deal (August 2014) was the first example of England’s city deal policies being applied in Scotland. If ‘enhanced devolution’ proposals from Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness ‘city regions’, submitted to the UK government in September 2015, are brought to fruition, over 75 per cent of Scotland’s population will be involved in ‘deal-based’ agreements.

In this context, understanding the issues that have arisen with England’s ‘devolution story’ since 2010, and tailoring these for a Scottish and local context, will become increasingly important for both deal and non-deal local authorities (LAs).

The briefing describes the England journey in some detail. The initial 2010-12 focus on ‘voluntary’ Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) to lead local growth, was superseded by city deals and Heseltine’s more ambitious ‘No Stone unturned…’ approach to devolution from 2012. This led to 68 ‘city’ and ‘local growth’ deals being signed during 2012-15, together with increasing LEP influence over EU structural funds (ESIF2014-20), and a range of growth-related policies (e.g. skills and employment, transport and infrastructure, business support).

Towards the end of the parliament, attention turned increasingly to the establishment of statutory intermediate-tier institutional arrangements for managing these processes – initially in the form of five Combined Authorities (CAs) for ‘city regions’ in Manchester (GMCA), Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, and the North East. In the GMCA case, their November 2014 ‘agreement’ rehearsed emerging themes of what has become the Conservative devolution ‘orthodoxy’. Powers and resources potentially ‘in-scope’ for devolution deals were extended to Health and Care integration; and the preference for a ‘metro-Mayor’ model of leadership and governance was introduced.

Since the General Election (GE2015), proposals and policies for devolution in England have proceeded apace. Underpinned by the enabling legislation of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, local areas in England now have a potentially huge canvas on which to formulate enhanced devolution proposals – from pan-regional (e.g. Northern Powerhouse) to single LA (e.g. Cornwall) levels of geography; from local growth to broad public services reform; from ‘metro-mayor’ to modified status quo LA arrangements. They also have the prospects of the inception of the Chancellor’s ‘devolution revolution’ announcements re business rates localisation, and the possibility of making other local fiscal proposals.

This impressive pace of change should not obscure major challenges of actually delivering a new devolutionary national-local ‘equilibrium’ in powers and resources. Most of these challenges will be highly relevant to the even more complex UK Government-Scottish Government-LA interfaces in Scotland.

There needs to be clarity and alignment of what any ‘devolution project’ is seeking to achieve – at UK Government, Scottish Government and local levels. In England, goals have oscillated from local growth, to public services reform, to efficiency savings, to facing ‘societal challenges’ – each of which requires different geographies and instruments to be effective.

Capacity and capability needs to be mobilised over extended periods, and at each level of governance, to sustain negotiations, agreement and delivery management. The impact and knock-on consequences of bespoke individual deals on overall policy and financial contexts needs to be understood and managed (e.g. for non-deal areas).

The whole construct of competitive ‘deals’ gives overwhelming negotiation and political patronage powers to UK-wide (and potentially Scottish) government. The case for some form of independent commission, mediating processes, or a more major constitutional convention may be appropriate to redress these imbalances.

Issues around cities and/or non-metropolitan areas focus and ‘intermediate tiers’ are huge. Proposals need to build cases with identity/coherence, accountable leadership (e.g. metro-mayor arguments), scale and functional effectiveness, sustainability and partnership working. Roles of non-LA partners (e.g. business, HE, civil society) and public engagement needs to be resolved.

The Smith Commission report raised many of these issues – devolution within Scotland, inter-governmental working (UK-wide, Scottish, local), parliamentary oversight, and public awareness. Although these resonate with many of the England devolution ‘lessons’, they have not been robustly progressed by either UK government or Scottish governments in Scotland Bill 2015-16.

There are opportunities for Scottish LAs to develop these agendas – locally, Scotland, and UK wide. The Scottish Cities Alliance and impending Cities Convention in Perth may be particularly relevant for cities agendas – especially in the light of the existing and prospective ‘city’ and ‘devo’-deals.

Glasgow’s membership of the Core Cities Group provides exchange with English counterparts (and Cardiff). Perhaps channels for England-Scotland exchange should be broadened – especially with ‘Northern Powerhouse’ city regions who have traditionally been concerned about issues of competitive advantage at Scotland government levels.

Whatever its caveats and challenges, one almost universally-applauded benefit of England’s devolution journey is the improved inter-governmental understandings and relationships that deal negotiation has stimulated. This focus on inter-governmental working will be particularly important for Scottish LAs – with both Holyrood and Westminster. In that endeavour, more systematic deliberative exchange with English LA counterparts could be increasingly relevant and helpful.