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John Denham: To truly take back control local government must help

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Of all the factors that went into the Brexit vote, one was most clear: the appeal to ‘take back control’.

This was strongest in England outside London, and amongst voters who identify themselves as English. In that sense, the Brexit vote can be seen as a fundamental English demand for representation and power.

The haphazard evolution of the UK’s constitution has left its largest part in a unique position. It is now the only nation in the UK to have its domestic policy and legislation made by the UK government. At the same time it is widely regarded as the most centralised nation in Europe.

The potential return of powers from Brussels highlights the tricky position of UK ministers.

The environment secretary Michael Gove, for one, must represent the agricultural interests of both the UK and England. They are not the same, and the devolved governments have been quick to cry foul.

Even without Brexit, England’s governance would need reform. But the pressure can now only grow.

This is the context in which Governing England: English Identity and Institutions in a Changing United Kingdom is published as part of the British Academy’s research on English devolution and identity. Leading academics analyse the state of English local devolution, the governance of England and its evolution within the union.

While some have called for powers repatriated from Brussels to be devolved past Whitehall to the regions of England, the regional structures of the last Labour government have been swept away and few regions have the strong identities that would sustain stable regional bodies.

The more obvious starting point for reform is to build on the developing patterns of combined authorities and metro mayors, extending these beyond the current seven – already expanded in May with the election of the newly-created mayor for the Sheffield city region.

These are limited in formal powers, resources and responsibilities, and are at least as much focused on the delivery of central government objectives as local determined priorities. Still, they are the current focus of change.

This approach would need to overcome key problems. The British Academy study suggests that the distribution of resources across England’s regions does not obviously reflect need. Further financial devolution would also need to find ways of ensuring fair redistribution.

The emerging pattern of devolution is messy. To the extent that this reflects natural communities and economies that may not matter – indeed, it might be a strength.

But solutions will be needed for the areas – often isolated and in great need – that do not fit this model, and for the towns outside the metropolitan centres that are not enjoying even trickle-down benefits.

It’s not yet clear whether the soft power of the elected mayors will develop the public support and influence that can force more rapid change. The evidence suggests that the mayor of London has become an established public leader, but this has not yet spread to the more recently elected mayors.

There is support for change amongst English voters, but this is yet to crystallise into a public consensus around the best model. Neither an English parliament, English regionalism, nor the newer innovation of combined authorities attract clear majority support.

As everyone involved in local government will recognise, change is needed. But local government and others will need to lead the debate about how it might happen and build public support.

John Denham, visiting professor, University of Winchester, and director, Centre for English Identity and Politics. He was also communities and local government secretary between 2009 and 2010. 

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