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Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

By 2040, we’ll know whether city-level or national devolution does most for cities

Devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Governance arrangements across the UK have seen huge change in the last 20 years under the banner of devolution. Will the next 20 years bring evolution, or further revolution?

In 2040 we will be able to look back and gauge whether our cities (and their citizens and businesses) will have benefitted from this new found and, in some cases, hard-won control.

Two quite distinctive models have emerged. In England, cities and their regions have been the focus of that devolution whilst elsewhere nations have been able to form new parliaments and Assemblies.

In September 1997, referendums were held in Scotland and Wales, and a majority of voters chose to establish a Scottish Parliament and a National Assembly for Wales. In Northern Ireland, devolution was a key part of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement supported by voters in a referendum in May 1998.

Understandably, what then followed was a drive by English cities (or city regions) to secure similar additional powers at a sub-national level.

As we write elsewhere, in England significant powers are being devolved to cities, which are responding to the opportunity to take control of certain elements of key services and the funding related to those services.

111Devolution to Scotland Wales and Northern Irelandpullquote270x127But in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland devolution operates first at a national level and second at a city level. CBRE has coined the phrase ‘devolution headroom’ to describe the space (or perhaps the distance) between city and central government. The presence of a national parliament or assembly sitting between cities and the UK Government in Westminster suggests potentially less headroom. Indeed, only a few years into the devolution to Scotland and Wales, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argued that devolution in Scotland and Wales had not significantly increased local government autonomy, and that devolved ‘centres’ in Edinburgh and Cardiff were instead seeking to deliver common policy standards across their territories.

In terms of access to ministers for both citizens and the business community, the benefits of effective devolved national government are already evident. But it could be argued that cities in the devolved nations have not really seen the full range of new powers enjoyed by their English counterparts. This is despite work by the UK Government to conclude City Deals beyond England, such as in Glasgow, in the last few years (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Progress of Scottish City Deals, December 2017

111 graph

Source: Scottish Parliament

The pressure on both Westminster, and to a lesser extent the administrations of the devolved nations, will surely be to cede further powers to the cities which drive economic performance. If we are right that the pace of devolution to cities could vary between England and the other parts of the UK, the next twenty years will involve our cities conducting a live experiment to decide whether British cities do better, or worse, with the new powers, and which powers have most impact. Success will also no doubt depend on the quality of the people in charge. But by 2040, it seems very likely that the results will be apparent. Some cities on one side of a border will be looking enviously at the experience of those on the other side. But it is perhaps too early to say which way round it will be.

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