Big Ideas: "This is just the beginning of English Devolution" - expert

The success of English Devolution was a highlight of our Big Ideas public engagement event last week. We caught up with politics expert Dr Paul Anderson to find out whither devolution and what does it mean for Liverpool? 

English devolution is 10 years old already – has it been a success of a failure?

I think it has been a success and I suppose the fact that both the Conservatives and Labour are advocating deeper and wider devolution in England supports that. Currently, there are nine Mayoral Combined Authorities, some more successful to date than others. Greater Manchester’s Bee network and the opening of Headbolt Lane station in Kirkby are notable successes.


What’s the experience here in the Liverpool City Region?

The Liverpool City Region is one of the success stories and is already moving to Level 4 devolution which means more powers and more funding! Transport has been a primary focus for the region, with buses set to come back under public control (like Greater Manchester) and attention paid to affordable travel (e.g. £2 bus fares). There are also successes in projects like LCR Connect – to implement ultrafast digital infrastructure across the region – the Households into Work scheme and apprenticeships for young people. There’s much to shout about, but also much more to be done, particularly to further address the economic and social gaps between north and south.


In terms of popular support and enthusiasm for the idea, how can we gauge that?

This is where the mayoral combined authorities suffer a bit as these are not institutions where regular polling is conducted. Turnout in elections is probably the best measure, and here it is rather low in comparison with general elections. In those mayoral elections that took place in 2021, turnout increased in all areas compared to the first elections in 2017. It remains low, averaging around 39%, but as these institutions become more prominent, turnouts should increase. I guess we’ll see come May 2.


What about fiscal devolution? Isn’t giving powers without much fiscal devolution pointless?

That is a very good point and one it seems that the current government understand. Recently, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands signed new ‘trailblazer’ agreements with the Government which includes a ‘single settlement’ where these combined authorities will receive a single budget to spend as they see fit. That is not the case with other combined authorities where money is largely earmarked for certain things. The key thing for mayors is not just wanting more money, but fiscal flexibility – this is crucial as devolution in England evolves, and something mayors will be advocating as elections approach.


What impetus do you expect a Labour administration will inject into the process?

The interesting thing as a general election approaches is the alignment between Labour and the Conservatives on devolution. Both parties want more. At the moment, from the 10 mayors (if we include London) Labour has 8 and the Conservatives 2. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for Labour. Keir Starmer has spoken about moving power out of Whitehall, so I expect debate on devolution to continue – but what politicians say in opposition and what they do in government tends to be different! Relations will be good as long as the mayors and government are singing from the same (or at least a similar) hymn sheet. I think the challenge might be when it comes to fiscal devolution – mayors want greater fiscal flexibility, but will a new Chancellor be willing to move in this direction?


Three more elected mayor regions will, as you say,  soon take the total to 10, representing 50% of the English. Is that an end to it?

I think it is just the beginning. Two new combined authorities will elect a mayor for the first time this May (York and North Yorkshire and East Midlands) while the North East Mayoral Combined Authority is expanding to include more local authorities and will replace the North of Tyne authority. In May 2025, there will be four more new mayors elected. The map of devolution, however, is largely focused on urban areas – serious thinking is needed to address this. But, the genie is definitely out of the bottle. Watch this space!

Dr Paul Anderson is a senior lecturer in politics in the Faculty of Arts, Professional and Social Studies.


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