The pros and cons of messy devo

By Catherine Durose and Vivien Lowndes | 15 August 2023

Unfinished devolution may feel like a failure to deliver, but can we think differently ask Catherine Durose and Vivien Lowndes. Could it open up to diverse voices and deepen place-based democracy?

The history of English city regional devolution is littered with reforms and plans that have been shelved, abandoned or replaced. This can undermine policy-makers’ ability to deliver outcomes. We usually think about this ‘incompleteness’ as evidence of failure. But, can we think differently about it? Can incompleteness actually be an asset for local policy-makers?

Incompleteness is a significant, inevitable and potentially valuable feature of the institutional landscape of city regional devolution in England. Rather than a failure, it can be understood as unfinished, in flux or open.

City regional devolution is unfinished because it is a reform on its way to being completed. From this perspective it is a plan to be rolled out or scaled up in order to realise the ambitions of central Government.

The history of English central-local relations shows the longstanding imposition of standardising or centralising norms by central Government on city regional and local institutions. In this way, the framing of city regional devolution and its fiscal conditioning consolidates central Government’s priority of economic growth.

But city regional actors may themselves also aspire to completeness. This may either be to ‘get the best’ from each stage or negotiation or because they have a vision of what a devolution ‘end state’ should look like. Greater Manchester for instance, has played a long game of promoting collaboration between individual local authorities across the city region as a pre-condition towards achieving its vision for a devolved city region.

City regional devolution is unfinished because it is an ongoing process, in which further, more ambitious devolution deals are put in place over time.

It can also be seen as ‘in flux’ because it is inevitably a struggle between different interests. Different local intentions can shape the implementation and impact of central reforms in diverse ways.

City regional devolution ‘deals’ have been negotiated on a bespoke basis. Not all parts of the country are covered by the new institutional arrangements and, where combined authorities do exist, their governance, powers and responsibility vary significantly.

The uneven and conditional nature of reforms around this type of devolution suggests less of a master plan than an exercise in central-local negotiation.

Brief, provisional ‘devo deals’ reflect attempts to balance competing political constituencies and keep open future possibilities for further devolution. Policy-makers at central, city regional and local levels have to work with and around incompleteness.

Messy approaches allow devolution to be shaped by changing circumstances and local contexts. Incompleteness can enable openness to diverse voices and greater responsiveness to local needs and aspirations.

While some devolution deals have been criticised for excluding wider consultation, cities like Sheffield and Southampton have used deliberative ‘mini-publics’ to debate the future of city regional devolution, allowing citizens to bring to the table important and under-recognised issues relating to local identities and democratic accountability.

These forms of participation can offer the means for wider inclusion and promote the legitimacy and effectiveness of this type of devolution. Such examples are illustrative of the capacity of city regions and localities to generate institutional innovation.

Limited attention spans from central Government, along with the appeal of the new, have tended to shape a continuous and restless search for ‘completeness’ in city regional devolution.

Thinking about incompleteness is particularly relevant now, given the recent rapid churn in local economic development policy, and the uneven impacts of recent crises from the climate emergency to Covid and the cost of living.

Incompleteness in city regional devolution is inevitable and potentially advantageous. We are not arguing that plans or outcome specifications should be abandoned, but rather that pre-set or prescribed solutions are not necessarily the most effective or even efficient way to achieve them.

Recognising incompleteness can help enable city regional actors to make sense of the sub-national policy landscape, better recognise their own agency and influence, and design institutions that can adapt to changing circumstances.

Incompleteness provides opportunities to open up devolution to more diverse voices, and better reflect local insights and lived experience. Flexible, rather than fixed futures for city regional devolution can deepen place-based democracy.

Catherine Durose is professor of public policy and co-director of the Heseltine Institute at the University of Liverpool. Vivien Lowndes is emerita professor (public policy) at the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham

@livuniheseltine @INLOGOV

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