Devolution of 1832 was introduced as a result of

Devolution in Retrospect

 

Foreword

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The desire for devolution in
the North of England has become a matter of increased political salience throughout
the past decade; notably since the Scottish Referendum of 2014. This essay traces
the formation and evolution of local government in England and postulates a shift
from local government, to local governance as the origin for an advocacy
towards English devolution. This position is augmented by key policy changes
from the 1979 Thatcher Government, to the establishment of the Conservative-Liberal
Democrat Coalition in 2007. Through the case study of the North-East Assembly Referendum
of 2004, I conclude that an ‘imitative model of democracy’ (Amin, 2004: 37) and
lack of democratic autonomy, has resulted in the failed efforts of English
regionalism to date. On this premise, I critique the ‘economic renewal’ (Bailey,
2016) accent of the current devolution agenda for the North of England.

 

 

The Genesis of Local Government in
England

 

(FIG.1)
Industrialisation
in Britain brought with it a plethora of socio-economic challenges. In the
middle of the nineteenth century, as a result of the exigencies of the
industrialisation process, a mass movement of workers from rural to urban areas
occurred (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 13). The Great Reform Act of 1832 was introduced as a result of a surge in population
in key cities during the Industrial Revolution. (FIG.2) Prior
to the act being put in place, boroughs could send two representatives to the
House of Commons, though it was primarily the land-owning class who contributed
(nearly all men in
possession of freehold property were given a vote; the complicit nature of the
system granted some the ability to vote in all the constituencies in which they
held property) (Phillips & Wetherell, 1995: 413). (FIG.3) The Reform Act took into account the
new movement of population around Britain and enabled fair representation in
areas previously represented by local aristocracy, yet had a rising number of
working class residents.

 

Subsequent to the 1832 Great Reform Act, the movement of
industrial workers was beginning to open the eyes of policy-makers as there was
an evident need for provision within education, housing, health, and sanitation
(Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 13). Initially introduced as an agglomeration
of bodies working in an impromptu manner, services began to be provided across
a wide range of sectors. It soon became apparent they could not meet the needs
of a new, and rapidly populating, urbanised society. The 1835 Municipal Corporations
Act was initiated in an attempt to control the provision of services. It established
‘178 elected municipal councils in the
largest towns and cities with a variety of powers and introduced democratic
procedures for the election of borough councillors’ (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg,
2000: 13).

 

(FIG.4) By the 1880s, the piecemeal nature in
which the municipal councils operated, failed to remain concomitant with the
ways in which society was developing. As a result of this, the 1888 Local Government Act was established
in an effort to create a standardised system. The framework of this system consisted
of sixty-two ‘administrative counties’ which covered most rural areas, and
sixty-one ‘county boroughs’ principally covering urban areas, including cities
such as Manchester, Leeds, and Newcastle (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 13-14).

(FIG.5) The outline of these counties
was based on historic boundaries, yet redrawing occurred to ensure each settlement
stayed within one county. Some towns were situated on old county borders;
Todmorden in West Yorkshire was previously distinguished as belonging to the
counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire West Riding, but was now a member of
Yorkshire West Riding only (Morley, 2014: 92).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Municipal
Reform in the Twentieth Century

(FIG.6)
Minor changes materialised in the structure
of local government in the sixty years following the 1888 Local Government Act. During the years of the Second World War
‘a government commissioned report The Barlow Report 1940 identified large
shifts in population to major urban conurbations, which had, to a large extent,
overtaken the boundaries established at the end of the nineteenth century’
(Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 15). Pycroft (1995) states that rapid changes
in the urban environment had shown administrative reform suffering from inertia.

As a result of urban changes, one can understand that the institutional
arrangements at the local level were no longer representative of the economic and
social realities of day-to-day life (FIG.7)
The 1972 Local Government Act introduced
a two-tier system, which conceived thirty-nine
English and eight Welsh county councils along with six metropolitan county
councils modelled on the London system put in place in the 1960s (Atkinson
& Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 19). The introduction of metropolitan county councils
was paramount in this change; the new urban areas created by industrialisation
were now beginning to receive resources in line with their increasing
population.

 

It is important, at this stage, to place
emphasis on the function of local government to this date. (FIG.8) The
rapid growth of local government from the mid-nineteenth into the twentieth
century was a result of the need for local authorities to provide key services
such as healthcare, housing, and education; all under the remit of the welfare
state. Councils of differing political
leanings in every part of the country bought out gas, water, and electricity
companies on practical rather than ideological grounds (Crewe,
2016). (FIG.9) The creation of the National Health Service, under health
minister Nye Bevan in 1948, manifests the consensus for service provision. Bailey and Elliot (2009) argue that despite
the obvious benefits of service provision, the introduction of elected
councillors in the creation of local government was the beginning of a historic,
problematic relationship between central and local government. This position
can be founded on the understanding that once a new level of administration is
created for powers to be conferred to, these powers can equally be withdrawn. By the middle of the 1970s, the consensus for
local service delivery began to show cracks – 
it is here a shift from local government to local governance is first established.  

 

 

From Local Government to Governance

 

(FIG.10) The Conservative government of 1979 entered office
following the world oil crisis of 1973 and amid growing concern over structural
economic problems in Britain. At this time, there was a question mark over old
orthodoxies and a ‘spotlight on the role of the public sector, and in
particular, local government.’ (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 29). In
response to the current economic climate, the new administration fronted by
Margaret Thatcher placed significant emphasis on public finance. As ‘local authorities accounted for
approximately one-third of total public expenditure, any significant attempt to
reduce public expenditure would have to involve local government bearing its
share of the burden’ (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 64).

 

The financial autonomy of local authorities was significantly
reduced during Thatcher’s years in government; key moves began to be made after
her success in the general election of 1987. Four acts of parliament were
passed in the following year; most notably the 1988 Local Government Act. Amongst a series of changes, this act made
it compulsory for local authorities to submit a range of services for
competitive tender (Radford, 1988: 747). Radford (1998:47) expresses that the
creation of a market was a ‘significant step in two of the Government’s major
objectives – introducing greater competition and securing greater value for
money’. This resulted in private companies now carrying out services for a
significantly lower fee. It is in the marketization of services a key change in
the role of local authorities can be understood; they were no longer interventionists,
but becoming directors of a complex network of service delivery – an attribute still
evident in today’s government (Campbell, 2016).

 

(FIG. 11) Moreover, the introduction of the poll
tax (a uniform tax for all adults in contrast to one based on property value) and
removal of local business rates and revenue support grants under this act,
restricted the income of local authorities on an unprecedented level. Cochrane
(1993: 42) notes that from here on ‘many councils were setting out more
modestly to explore what was possible within the limits they faced’. Defined as
‘creative autonomy’ by Atkinson and
Wilks-Heeg (2000: 79), the strictures put in place enthused some local
authorities to find loopholes in which to work around the policy agendas.  (FIG.

12) One area in which authorities were expected to increase income was in
the sale of assets. Through the use of a leaseback agreement, Camden Council managed
to sell its own town hall to show a conscious effort to create income, with a
clause created to buy it back at a later date (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg,2000:
96).

 

(FIG. 13) The fallout from the implementation of
the poll tax led to the demise of Thatcher’s government in 1990, yet strict
financial constraints remained throughout the government of John Major until 1997.

The concerted effort to reduce the autonomy of local government during Thatcher
and Major government’s, through a centre-enabled, corporate focus resulted in the
redefinition of local government to ‘a body which merely awards and supervises
contracts’ (Radford, 1988: 766). Due to a surge in the number of governance
networks, Atkinson and Wilks-Heeg (2000) unfold that ‘concerns were expressed
that local government was becoming too big, overly bureaucratic and distanced
from the people it was designed to serve’. It is possible to comprehend that the historic understanding of local
government existing within a geographic boundary was increasingly less
tenable from here out. The new system of governance, containing many actors
within a dispersed national network, is difficult to locate and has since been examined
by numerous academics (Massey, 1994; Amin, 2004; McCann, 2016; Bailey &
Wood, 2017).

 

The increased distance created between local government and the
general public is where I pose the desire for devolution originated. Granting
that local government set the levels of poll tax in each authority, ‘an
opinion poll in 1990 showed that 56 per cent of people blamed central
government for the problems arising out of poll tax’ (Bailey & Elliot,
2009). The shift in blame can be perceived as the electorate no longer believing
that local government had the powers in which to initiate any significant change.

As a result, a democratic deficit is created at the local level. Bailey and
Elliot (2009) assert that ‘the weak state of local democracy acts as an
incentive: so long as the democratic relationship between individuals and
councils remains weak, it is in the political interests of central government
to ensure the local authorities deliver key public services to a high standard.’
This understanding unfolds. This understanding of central government
intervention weakening local democracy, therefore forcing increased
intervention helps us comprehend the devolution agenda under New Labour from
1997.

 

 

Desire for Devolution

 

(FIG. 14) The New Labour Campaign for the general
election of 1997, fronted by Tony Blair, placed significant emphasis on
returning power from the centre back to localities in Britain. This rhetoric
was perceived as direct opposition to the centralisation policies of Thatcher
and Major (Kenny, 2016: Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000). A key promise
embedded in the campaign was for devolution referendums in both Scotland and
Wales. (FIG. 15) The outcome of
these referendums resulted in the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh
Assembly in 1998. During
the process of bringing varying degrees of self-government to Scotland and
Wales ‘the question of why the principles underpinning devolution did not apply
to the largest and most heavily populated territory of the United Kingdom hung
in the political air, especially among its Northern constituency parties where
scepticism about devolution had been most pronounced.’ (Kenny, 2016: 184). In
due course, New Labour focussed its attention to the English regions. Although
‘widely presented as the basis for an equivalent devolution to what was offered
in Scotland and Wales’ (Kenny, 2016: 185) England ‘… was given only regional structures of
government such as Regional Development Agencies … with no political clout’
(Willet & Giovannini, 2013: 346).

 

The remit of the newly founded Regional Development Agencies
solely covered economic development. Their establishment was perceived as an
attempt to solve the ‘economic deficit’ in the regions, as opposed to any form
of ‘democratic deficit’ (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 246). The perception
that ‘change towards democratic and accountable territorial government was
within reach’ under New Labour was now in question (Willet & Giovannini,
2013: 351). It was not until 2001, during their second term in office, a plan
to establish eight regional assemblies was introduced to further push their
regionalist agenda (Kenny, 2016: 186). The proposed assemblies were intended to
be formed from a mix of: elected councillors nominated by local authorities,
business interests, trade unions, voluntary organisations, and other relevant
bodies in the region.’ (Atkinson & Wilks-Heeg, 2000: 246).

 

(FIG.16) The first (and last) region chosen to
hold a referendum for a regional assembly was the North East; covering the key
cities of Newcastle upon Tyne, Durham, Middlesbrough and Sunderland. Support ‘for the idea of devolved government
was relatively high, and a strong sense of regional identity appeared to be
established’. Despite the appearance of a regional identity, the “Yes for North
East” (YES4NE) campaign (formed from a local elite of businessmen and
intellectuals) pushed the narrative of ‘long-term economic and social benefits’ with very little mention, or
connection to, public interest or opinion (Willet & Giovannini, 2013: 353).

(FIG.17) The opposing No campaign placed
a spotlight on the limited
nature of powers that would be delegated. Through the imagery of a white
elephant, they claimed that the regional assembly would only add an additional
layer of administration to an already complex system of governance. (FIG.18) On 4th
November 2004, 78% of the electorate voted against the establishment of a North-East
Assembly (Mulholland, North-East voters
reject regional assembly). The
‘government had put forward a proposal for regional assemblies which doomed
them to be weak and modest bodies, with very limited resources’ and delegation
of power (Willet & Giovannini, 2013: 352). It is evident in this result, despite the rhetoric of
devolution, New Labour’s agenda for England was one of ‘top-down
regionalisation’; an extension of central control over the regions.

 

The resounding No vote in the North-East referendum showed a
disconnection between the desire of the electorate to regain control over local
services and the economic interests expressed by the campaigners – an echo of
the central government interests of the time. The argument for not delegating
more democratic rights to the regions is one I find to be fuelled by political
ideology as opposed to a lack of public interest. In addition, the top-down
approach taken by New Labour was only augmented by the election of a ‘regional
elite’ (Amin, 2004: 37). The regional assemblies were not going to be formed
from local people and their ‘imitative forms of democracy’ were only ever perceived
as mini versions of Central Government (Amin, 2004).

 

 

Conclusion

 

Since
the proposal for regional assemblies, the focus on economic deficits in the
regions has only been inflated by the financial crisis of 2008. This can be
seen within the discourse of devolution to the regions in the agenda of the
Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition of 2010 to 2015. In his speech “…on
building a Northern Powerhouse (Osborne, 2014) delivered in Manchester in the
summer of 2014, George Osbourne proposed that joining the northern cities
together will give them the ‘local power and control that a powerhouse economy
needs’, with the word economy repeated 12 times and the word democracy
appearing once. Integral to this speech was the announcement of city deals, in
which the allocation of metro-mayors would play an integral part. Goerge
Osbourne claimed that ‘with these new powers for cities must come
new city-wide elected mayors who work with local councils … I will not impose
this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.’ The tone of central
control and concern for economics over democracy shows that since the reduction
of local government to governance networks outlined at the end of the twentieth
century and the failures of the regionalism agendas of New Labour, the current
devolution agendas for England are repeated economic ideology redressed in new
propaganda and buzzwords.