England’s devolved regions are too small. Bigger ones would have more clout

England’s political identity is too often driven by the south, argues Ed Cox. People in the north identify much more closely with their cities and regions than with the pan-England flag. Attempts to devolve government in the north have shown some promise but are partial and piecemeal and the current city-regions and combined authorities are too small to carry enough economic heft.

This week many of the nation’s constitutional experts will gather in London (where else?) to debate how England is governed. The conference represents an important milestone in the British Academy’s flagship policy programme on the topic and delegates will discuss a wide range of issues including the position of England within the UK parliament, the future of national political parties and matters of English identity.

As someone hailing from the North, the preoccupation with Englishness often witnessed at such events is a peculiarly southern concern. From a cultural perspective, there is plenty of evidence to show that our national English trope is defined in terms of southern landscapes, accents and mores – Northern stereotypes are always somehow ‘other’ (see Dave Russell’s Looking North: Northern England and the National Imagination, 2004).  But this is true politically too. Tory protagonists for an English parliament seem most concerned to protect the capital city’s wealth. And Labour’s champions for a rediscovery of the party’s English credentials are more likely to be found in Sussex and Southampton than Liverpool or Leeds.

In England’s northern regions, local and regional identities seem far more salient than any yearning for the St George’s flag. In the club versus country debate, club nearly always wins out. Of course, identity is a multi-dimensional concept: whether we are English, British, Geordie, Yorkshire or Manc is often a matter of context. But when governing England is at stake, such identifications matter. So it is just as well devolution is on the agenda too.

From personal observation in the North, there seems much less interest in English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) compared with devolution. These matters might seem too arcane to trouble the pollsters, but what evidence does exist suggests a great enthusiasm for local governance than is often acknowledged. According to the Future of England 2012 survey, 80 per cent of survey respondents said that they felt strong attachment to their ‘local area’, compared with 75 per cent feeling attachment to England and 66 per cent to the UK (Cox and Jeffery 2014).

More broadly, according to a regular survey carried out by PwC, when asked whether they think the current balance of power between central and local government is about right, only 18 per cent of people agree – indeed, less than one in 50 ‘strongly agree’. In the West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber, agreement falls below 15 per cent. This supports the evidence found in the Future of England surveys, where 39 per cent of respondents said that they believed local authorities should have more powers (Cox and Jeffery 2014).

It is in this context that during the EU referendum debate, the Leave campaigners’ slogan to “take back control” gained particular salience. It would be a giant leap of the imagination to say that such a slogan, alongside its antipathy towards Brussels and concerns about immigration, might also have represented a call for greater devolution. But few would doubt that it played on anxieties about a political class that was out of touch with local communities. Furthermore, it is not difficult to draw parallels with the anti-Westminster sentiment seen north of the border in Scotland.

So if people appear to have more faith in local rather than national political institutions, if there is a deep-seated desire to ‘take back control’, why then does this not translate into a louder call for English devolved institutions in the same way as it has in Scotland? The answer is complex.

The most apparent reason for public antipathy towards devolved governance is the poor options that they have been served up in England. In the most recent past, people in England have taken part in three referendums concerning devolved governance: for a London mayor and assembly; for a North East Regional Assembly; and for so-called City Mayors.

Unsurprisingly, people voted in favour of a London mayor as it came with significant powers, a shiny new office building and a high level of profile and accountability. But in the case of the regional assembly and city mayors the public were not much persuaded. Unlike the capital city – and indeed the devolved nations – their geography had little resonance with any sense of local identity and the package of powers that was to be devolved was far less clear and persuasive (Giovannini 2014).

The public have quite rightly rejected ‘another layer of politicians’ where they see they will add little value but, contrary to the widely-held narrative, where there have been proposals for robust sub-national governance with significant powers and accountability, the public have voted for their introduction. In London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland they have become very significant features of the national political landscape. Getting the right scale and the right package of powers would seem to be key to unlocking England’s devolution conundrum.

Recent initiatives to strike devolution deals with some of England’s city regions have shown promise, not least where good progress has been made. It is already apparent that in places like Greater Manchester, the metro mayor is quickly becoming part of the fabric of local governance and his office and powers (direct and indirect) will grow. But the nature of the deal-making process has left too many at square one and even in the case of our bigger city regions outside London, questions remain about whether they have the scale and clout to compete in a global economy.

A simple comparison with other similar developed nations suggests that the average size of subnational regional government stands at around 5 million people. The average size of a German länder, for example, is 5.2 million; for French conseil regions it is 5.3 million; and for US states it is 6.1 million. Greater Manchester stands at little over 2.5 million. And are we seriously suggesting that English regional governance should be sub-divided into 39 or 40 separate units?

While clearly there is no right answer to the question of the optimal scale of a functional economic area within a competitive global economy, let alone the right-size for more functional democracy, in the case of the English LEP areas, it is clear that in global terms they are very much at the smaller end of the scale. With Brexit on the horizon and the challenges that might bring in terms of global connectivity, the case for a larger-scale approach to economic strategy and democratic decision-making could not be more clear.

Any new form of subnational governance needs to be developed at scale. While England is too big, our current city-regions and combined authorities are too small. This may well be the reason that ideas such as the Northern Powerhouse or Midlands Engine have in recent times gathered so much momentum. We are still a long way from such ideas taking more political or democratic forms, but to claim they lack public support would be to misread the signs of the times.

Any debate about governing England must be alive to the possibility that as Westminster lurches from crisis to crisis, regional governance might well enable both the economic and the democratic resilience England so desperately needs.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit.

ed coxEd Cox (@edcox_ippr) is the director of the IPPR North think-tank. He recently authored a long essay called Taking Back Control in the North: a council of the north and other ideas

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