” … Should growth be the main goal?
Our research found that arguments for economic growth are weak at explaining how these outcomes would be achieved; they tend to focus on the benefits devolution would bring the national purse rather than the local economy. Devolution could improve the lives of local people, yet the current debate pays little attention to how this could be achieved.
How devolution would affect income-to-cost-of-living ratios, which affect everyone’s day to day economic reality, is seldom mentioned. The number of jobs that would be created is discussed far more often than the quality of jobs that would be created. Reducing poverty through economic growth is mentioned only four times in a total of 1,129 arguments.
Devolving fiscal and policy making powers to the local level over skills, housing, business rates and enterprise, could improve how the local economy works for its residents and local stakeholders. It could, for example, enable local government to better shape local business stock and promote resilience to external shocks through reasonable diversity in sectors, business size and ownership models. While economic growth may be one measure of success, it should not be pursued at the expense of other key economic and social goals that devolution could benefit.
Building a more democratic country
Creating a more democratic country seems an obvious aim for devolution but it is neglected by advocates of devolution, particularly in local government as Figure 2 shows. Discussions currently neglect the greater role citizens could play in political decision-making if decisions are made closer to home, but also the ways in which devolution could increase the accountability of elected leaders to the public. Simply creating elected mayors is not enough to revive an ailing democracy. This is why local governments should also be considering the mechanisms and structures for citizen participation which could make devolution worthwhile.
How can we change the debate?
We need to bring the debate into the open for public discussion, locally and nationally, so that everyday economic concerns like the quality of jobs created, and reducing inequality, feature strongly in discussions around what goals devolution should deliver.
So far, the debate has been conducted in the backrooms of Westminster rather than in public forums. Several parties in government have proposed a Constitutional Convention – a citizen forum where the governance of the country is discussed – but are yet to act on the proposal.
In the meantime, a group of academics and civil society groups have piloted this model in Sheffield and Southampton, showing how it would work. Drawing on examples from countries including Iceland, Canada, the Netherlands and Scotland, they show that the direct participation of local people in decision-making improves not only the democratic quality of decisions, but their effectiveness. It’s a match made in heaven for the devolution revolution.”
‘The briefing Democracy: the missing link in the devolution debate’ is available for download here:
Of the arguments made for devolution, 41.6% focus on achieving economic growth as the main justification for devolving power.
Only 12.9% of arguments make the case for devolution in order to shift power, strengthen democracy, and increase citizen involvement in decision-making.
Just 7.4% of arguments address inequalities in wealth and power between regions.
Environmental sustainability is part of just 0.8% of arguments.
Only 2.9% of arguments address the potential downsides and risks of devolution.
Local governments in particular seldom consider the impact of devolution on democracy, discussing democratic outcomes less than central government or think-tanks.