Revisiting the ‘English Question’ Post the Scottish Independence Referendum

sarah ayres

Sarah Ayres, Centre for Urban and Public Policy Research

Despite growing recognition across the major political parties that the territorial system of government in England is in need of change, there remains no clear and shared imagery on how England should be governed within a devolved UK. Recent changes to the political and economic landscape of the UK, especially those arising from the economic crisis and the Scottish referendum result, have made it more vital than ever before to address the English Question in a cohesive manner. Enhanced devolution in England’s territories is a potential solution to the English Question. I make three central claims about what needs to happen if devolution in England is to work. My views are based on my own research that has examined English governance over the past decade (see –

First, past attempts to address the English Question through enhanced decentralisation in England have been piecemeal, reactionary and have, therefore, proved unsustainable. The Prime Minister’s announcement, shortly after the referendum result, of constitutional reform at breakneck speed is risky and underplays the complexities of sub-national English governance.

Second, UK government remains highly centralised despite past and present government rhetoric around decentralisation, local discretion and enhanced fiscal autonomy. Any constitutional settlement must address highly differentiated preferences for devolution and decentralisation across Westminster and Whitehall departments as well as deep-rooted cultures that promote centralism.

Third, any moves to address the English Question must deal with England in its entirety and not focus on favoured geographies or localities at the expense of less favoured areas.

The Need for a Comprehensive Response

The motives for enhanced devolution and/or decentralisation centre on three main areas (i) boosting economic productivity (ii) public service improvement and efficiency and (iii) pressures for enhanced democracy. These themes were also evident at the start of New Labour’s devolution project in 1997. The key motivations for decentralisation have therefore remained consistent – as too have the main barriers. These include Whitehall’s differentiated approach to decentralisation, highly variable local governance capacity, a lack of resources for local investment and a continued inability to join up policy in any meaningful way at a sub-national level. The assumption that these problems are easily solved or can be quickly overcome this side of a general election is flawed. The Government’s presumption of a quick fix post the referendum result raises fears that it has not fully understood the challenges of a post devolution UK. Recent evidence submitted to the McKay Commission (2013), for example, is a stark reminder of the political complexity of this issue.

Is Westminster and Whitehall Ready for Devolution in England?

The feasibility of enhanced devolution in England rests on political and ideological grounds and on the willingness of the Centre to accommodate a new constitutional settlement. But, how might this be enacted systematically across Westminster and Whitehall departments with different levels of support for decentralisation? One doubts that there has been a drastic change in the mood music across the civil service or amongst politicians since the Scottish referendum. This raises a question about whether the Government’s renewed commitment to devolution in England is any more feasible than past attempts to promote local autonomy and discretion under, for example, regionalism or localism. There is a danger that Westminster’s disposition for centralism will result in a settlement that creates the illusion of change without too much cost to its power and political priorities.

Plans for enhanced devolution are likely to lead to greater geographical variations in policy design, delivery and evaluation. However, Whitehall has struggled to deal with variation between, for example, eight English regions and more recently 39 unelected Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). This issue is likely to be compounded by recent public spending cuts across Whitehall. A reduced administrative capacity at the Centre has led to the greater use of ‘ad hoc’ procedures and ‘softer’ processes for managing inter-governmental relations as opposed to formal arrangements. More fluid structures are viewed as more suited to deal the complexity of localism and the problems of managing the sub-national tier with diminished resources. An issue will be whether these structures and procedures are robust enough to support future plans for enhanced devolution.

A Fair Constitutional Settlement for All

The final point I make is that any planned response to the English Question will need to deal with England in its entirety. The Coalition government’s territorial focus in England on Cities and LEP areas has resulted in winners and losers due to different socio-economic conditions and variable collaborative capacities. Recent research indicates that many Whitehall civil servants referred to the ‘City Deal’ agreed with Manchester as the ‘aspirational model’ for greater sub-national control over public policy and finance. Nonetheless, the same officials also acknowledged that, for some, emulating this model would be a significant challenge and for others, impossible. Consequently, the variable capacity of emerging local governance arrangements has the potential to widen regional economic disparities further and lead to a greater sense of alienation from those areas that do not qualify for City Mayors, City Deals or Enterprise Zones. Heightened tensions between localities as a consequence of place based competition and more visible inequalities will do little to appease growing public demand for a fairer constitutional settlement.

Devolution in England must be fair to all citizens no matter where they live. However, plans, for example, to empower cities raise important questions about social justice and spatial equality. Any new constitutional settlement cannot ignore rural or less buoyant areas, for example. Devolved politics is producing variable social citizenship rights in different parts of the UK.  It will be essential to consider how policy divergence, variable economic benefits and differentiated inter-governmental relations will impact on localities and citizens.


In sum, attempts to address the English Question through enhanced political autonomy in England have been the consequence of a set of reforms that lack an underlying logic and which are littered with contradictions. The big constitutional question about the future of the England post devolution in London and the devolved territories has not been addressed and there is no consensus in government about what the final constitutional settlement should be. New Labour’s reform agenda stalled at the 2004 North East referendum and, in the absence of a constitutional master plan, the outcome has been a set of reactionary and incremental adjustments that lack strategic direction, buy-in and focus. Moving forward the challenge for government will be to develop a solution based on realism, pragmatism and sustainability and to avoid politically motivated and reactionary policy this side of the general election.

Sarah Ayres is Reader in Public Policy and Governance at the University of Bristol, UK, and is also Co-Editor of Policy & Politics

This was originally published on the Policy&Politics blog

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One year in, Bristol’s Mayoral experiment is making a difference to the city’s governance

Picture of GeorgeBristol’s first Elected Mayor, George Ferguson, gave his first State of the City address yesterday. Here, in a post that first appeared at Democratic AuditDavid Sweeting reviews the first year of George’s term in office and examines what the impact of Mayoral governance has been.

It is nearly a year since the first directly elected mayor of Bristol took office. While Bristol is not the only place in the country to have such a mayor, it was the only one of ten cities that said yes to a mayor in referendums held in May 2012. Despite various inducements from central government in the form of looking favourably at city deals, and also the prospect of a mayors’ cabinet with the PM himself, Bristolians were the only citizens in the country at that time to go for the option of replacing a traditional council leader with what many see as an American style figure at the head of city government. So, as the Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, prepares for his first ‘state of the city’ speech, it seems appropriate to ask, what difference does having an elected mayor make?

Campaigns for and against directly elected mayors tend to draw on similar arguments. The for camps tend to argue that directly elected mayors will be more democratic and more effective. They argue that when citizens are able to choose the mayor directly, it will lead to greater interest in the political process, more recognition of decision-makers, and therefore that leader will be more accountable once election time comes around. They also argue that directly elected mayors can draw on their direct mandate to influence others in the city, and that a mayor in post for four years can be more effective in making things happen, both inside and outside the council as a result of the stability that their fixed-term brings. The against camps tend to argue the reverse – that directly elected mayors will be less democratic and less effective. There is no way of getting rid of a mayor between elections, so they are unaccountable. And loading decision-making onto one individual centralises power too much, leading to delay and overload. Continue reading

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Towards a global parliament of mayors?

Alex Marsh reports on an event at the Bristol Festival of Ideas. This post first appeared at PolicyBristol Hub.

if-mayors-ruled-the-world-198x300How should a world characterised by increasingly complex interdependence be governed? If most of the major challenges we face have no respect for the artificial borders marking out nation states, how can we identify and deliver effective solutions?

The answer Benjamin Barber offered in his stimulating presentation on Monday night is that we need to look to cities. More specifically, we need to look to mayors. His case is in part rooted in the fact of an increasingly urban future. But it is also based upon the characteristics he identifies as distinctive to mayoral governance. This is an argument developed at greater length in his new book If mayors ruled the world: Dysfunctional nations, rising cities (Yale University Press).

Barber starts from the premise that we can no longer look to the nation state to find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. The nation state may have made sense when social and economic problems were contained within borders. That is not the world we inhabit now. Even if a problem starts as local, it can soon become global.

But in a world of interdependence the community of nations has time and again proved itself unable to deliver an effective response. Whether it be policy on climate change, security, migration or public health, attempts to find cross-national solutions are as likely to result in stalemate or veto by individual sovereign states as they are to result in decisive action. When problems demand collaborative solutions, nation states can find it hard to move beyond their competitive impulses.

Equally importantly, nation states fail to secure the sort of broad-based democratic support that is necessary to deliver legitimacy to radical solutions. This is because of the limited and rather abstract nature of national citizenship. It is a citizenship of rights, without meaningful obligations that have an everyday urgency.

Barber contrasts this with the way in which mayors operate. Models of mayoral governance differ in their detail, but their defining characteristic is pragmatism. Barber’s argument has a strongly structural flavour. He argues that for mayors “issues shape behaviour in common ways” and that “ideology doesn’t serve them very well;  and nor do political parties”. Mayors need to find solutions to real problems that affect the day to day lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Continue reading

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Housing association futures

Under the strapline “Creating a new vision for housing associations” the National Housing Federation is currently facilitating a nationwide conversation within the British social housing community about the future of social housing. Part of that exercise is to gather perspectives on what housing providers will look like, and what they will be doing, in 2033. In this post Alex Marsh offers his perspective. The post first appeared on the HotHouse blog as a contribution to the NHF’s national conversation.

The global financial crisis looks like a critical juncture on the path of housing policy. The old rules of the game have been disrupted. The crash empowered the Coalition government to slash conventional capital funding, introduce the “affordable” rent programme and pursue precarious welfare reform. This combination is setting us off on a new path, which will over time transform the sector.

We have witnessed relatively little structural reform to the broader housing market over the last three years, and it doesn’t look like there is a lot more on the agenda for the next couple. This is a missed opportunity. Unless there is a radical rethink – for example regarding the benefits of subsidizing bricks and mortar rather than people – I don’t see a substantial change in policy direction any time soon.

So what might the world look like if we continue down the path we seem to have set out on? Continue reading

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Citizens, mayors and democracy in the city

As part of Democracy Week in Bristol, last Friday academics from the University of Bristol and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) took part in a seminar on citizens, mayors and democracy in the city. The event drew on research co-produced with research partners in local communities, including local policy communities. The participation of colleagues from Mexico was made possible by support from the British Academy. In this post Jo Howard, the SPS doctoral student responsible for organising the event, gives her perspective on the afternoon’s discussions.

Both Mexico City and Bristol now have directly elected mayors. Both cities are experimenting with ways of engaging citizens beyond the ballot box. In Mexico City, citizens can take part in participatory budgeting. In Bristol, neighbourhood partnerships bring residents, councillors and service providers together to address local issues and make decisions about local service provision. The seminar explored to what extent these mechanisms deepen democracy. And if citizens have more decision-making power, how does this affect the role of councillors? Continue reading

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