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IFG - Decentralisation – easier said than done

As parties begin to make pledges to decentralise political power, the Institute warns it is difficult to achieve.

Political parties promising to decentralise power from Whitehall must learn from recent experiences or risk policy failure. Attempts to decentralise power, such as police and crime commissioners, elected mayors and regional assemblies all provide important lessons that have not yet been learned, according to a new report.

By studying attempts over the last three decades, the Institute for Government (IfG) found that political decentralisation is often desirable, yet rarely successful.

The report Achieving Political Decentralisation – Lessons from 30 years of attempting to devolve political power in the UK includes seven case studies of varying success, including elected mayors, combined authorities, City Deals and devolution in Scotland.

As well as the essential ingredients needed for any party serious about decentralising political power, the IfG identifies 10 obstacles to success under three themes:

  1. Resistance by national government – the centre lacks faith in the competence of local government and its accountability for failure, but also struggles to agree within itself on decentralisation plans.
  2. Resistance by local government – for example in the case of elected mayors and the North-East assembly, local politicians were reluctant to lose powers.
  3. Resistance from the public – members of the public are largely apathetic to local reforms and sceptical about more powers to politicians, even locally.

According to the report, characteristics of successful reforms include widespread support, robust accountability mechanisms and meaningful transfers of power that the public understand. 

Furthermore, parties contemplating decentralisation must create a compelling case for change and be clear on the scale of change required. And it is imperative for manifesto writers to understand the level of political capital that must be spent for change to occur.

A serious attempt to decentralise would have similar characteristics to the policies of Devolution to Scotland and London, including:

  • Clear commitment of the party leader
  • Preparations beginning early 
  • A clear manifesto pledge with a comprehensive set of powers on offer that the public can make a choice about eg. through a referendum
  • A timeframe for implementation
  • Leadership and coordination within the party, so that other party commitments do not clash
  • Proper consideration of how new governance structures will work and what trade-offs may be required.

How openly and honestly parties have made their choices in these areas will be the way to identify if they are serious about successful decentralisation. 

With manifesto writing now underway, the IfG concludes that: “If any political party is genuinely committed to serious political decentralisation it will need to rethink – or at least radically develop – its approach.”

Tom Gash, Director of Research at the Institute for Government, said:

“The UK is one of the most centralised countries of its size in the world so it’s unsurprising that politicians are already considering ways to decentralise political power after the 2015 General Election. For any plans to be credible, however, parties need to demonstrate that they have learned the lessons of past decentralisation successes and failures, for example the aborted effort to set up regional assemblies in 2004.

“Evidence suggests that success will be much more likely if reforms can be made relevant to the public, have the clear support of the party leader, and if cabinet-level colleagues are able to refrain from outlining policies in the areas they are promising to decentralise. Parties must also work collaboratively with local politicians and other groups to build support and develop a sufficiently detailed manifesto commitment.”

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