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Ben Rogers: We need devolution, not decentralisation

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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that this country is too centralised.

England, in particular, has an extraordinarily centrifugal system of government. Almost all tax is set and harvested in Whitehall. Even council tax, nominally set by local government to pay for local services, is controlled from the centre.

London has more self-government than any other English city. Yet it controls around 7% of taxes it raises, compared with 50% in New York City.

In the age of ‘take back control’, the political establishment is sensitive to charges of hoarding power. The instinctive response from Westminster is to promise decentralisation, with Theresa May’s 2016 manifesto, for instance, pledging to move civil servants out of London. Yet it’s not decentralisation we need, but devolution.

Decentralisation involves relocating a central government or national institution away from the capital. Devolution is different. It’s not about retaining power while moving those who exercise it on your behalf to a new location. It’s about giving up power and passing it down to people closer to the ground.

Ms May and Jeremy Corbyn like to suggest that their own commitment to decentralising power is something new. But every government since 1945 has supported relocating bits of the civil service and other central institutions to the provinces.

Even every radical’s favourite new idea of moving Parliament to another part of the country is classic decentralisation, taking a great national institution and placing it elsewhere.

But the record of decentralisation is chequered at best. The decision to move the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to Newport in Wales seems to have run into all sorts of difficulties, with the service struggling to persuade its senior staff to move or to recruit local people with the right skills to replace them.

Even the move of the BBC to Salford, generally rated a success, has had limited impact on the local economy, according to the Centre for Cities. The truth is 80 of UK jobs are in the private sector, so moving public sector jobs around is going to have limited impact.

New research by the Centre for London, published this month, reveals that Londoners aren’t persuaded by the case for decentralisation. Perhaps more surprisingly, it finds that rest of the country isn’t either.

When given a list of 10 institutions to move out of London to ‘make the UK a fairer place’ – including Parliament, the civil service, national galleries and museums – 40% of Britons outside London said ‘none of these’. Even the most popular choice, moving the civil service, is only supported by 20% of non-Londoners.

Our interviews with city and business leaders outside the capital revealed that some were in favour of moving more civil servants out, and that some saw the lack of progress on this front as a sign that government isn’t following through. Others didn’t see the point. Almost all wanted more powers locally.

Polling and our conversations reveal strong demand for transformative devolution across the country. Rightly so. The UK’s places are if anything growing more unalike. A seaside town with an ageing population and high unemployment faces different challenges from a university city with escalating house prices or a global capital like London.

The lack of self-government in these places makes it almost impossible for them to develop creative, joined-up and tailored solutions. Our towns and cities are full of enterprising people, with a deep understanding of their local areas, eager to help make them better but without the power to do so.

A radical programme of devolution, not decentralisation is the right response to our overmighty central state.

Ben Rogers, director, Centre for London

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