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Decentralisation: bad arguments and good arguments

Blog 13 Comments

  • Devolution
  • Institutional reform
  • Localism

I have pretty much always been an advocate of decentralising more power from Westminster and Whitehall.

My experience as a county councillor and then a Number Ten advisor tended to reinforce my views. But, in truth, it’s also good to have a simple way to criticise things that makes it sound like I’m on the side of the underdog.

For years my arguments have felt a bit tired and facile, but the other day, for no particular reason, I had a moment of revelation. Not only have I relied on weak arguments, but in doing so I have failed to articulate the slam dunk case for devolution.

Bad argument: being closer to the people means you make better decisions

Chief among the lazy arguments is that we should devolve power because those closer to the people make better decisions. I’m not saying this isn’t true, it’s just that it ignores evidence and common sense that points the other way. Put simply, lots of people who judge what to do by what they see in front of them are liable to suffer from limited knowledge, excessive subjectivity and tribal bias.

It’s all very well having local interpretation and local solutions of a social challenge – say, street homelessness. But, on the one hand, such phenomena tend to have common underlying causes as well as distinctive local expressions while, on the other, a wider lens can quickly show that some interventions seem to work much better than others.

What’s more, while national analysts can be reasonably dispassionate, local decision makers will tend to be biased in favour of the local solutions led by people they know. All in all, being close to a problem is as likely to impair judgement as to sharpen it.

Bad argument: Whitehall doesn't understand local circumstances

The converse argument is that national ministers and officials don’t understand local circumstances and are antagonistic to local discretion and difference. Again, while there is truth in this there is another side to the story.

Being able to look dispassionately across the country enables national observers to see and analyse patterns, including the ways that local factors affect problems and solutions.

Generally, Whitehall policy makers do think about the appropriate balance of central prescription and local discretion, partly in recognition of local difference, partly because they don’t always have the capacity to prescribe implementation in detail and partly because they don’t aspire to Nye Bevan’s idea of accountability, that the sound of a dropped bedpan in Tredegar should reverberate around the Palace of Westminster.

Indeed, to be honest the biggest problem expressed to me by people involved in the hard graft of delivering outcomes – in areas ranging from NHS procurement to industrial strategy - is a severe lack of local capacity. We can blame that on austerity or the long-term effects of centralisation but in the short term it rather suggests we should be consolidating and centralising more not less.

Good argument: The impact of multiple national policies can only be understood locally

So local politicians and officers aren’t angels and national ministers and officials aren’t devils (although I might here make an exception for Chris Grayling).

Can I just say sorry for consistently and sometimes passionately arguing the reverse for most of my life?

But there is to my mind an irrefutable argument for decentralisation. It’s not about the relations between national and local but what goes on at the centre.

Those in charge of individual policies, strategies and even departments may try their best to get right the balance of central control and local discretion, but what they almost never even try to do is understand the consequence of multiple national policies, incentives and funding streams all landing in one place.

While I find national officials and ministers can usually hold up their end well when I accuse them or their teams being too centralising, I equally find when I start to explain how their policies might be clashing and conflicting with other stuff constantly emanating from the centre that they tend to close down the conversation as soon as possible.

While overlapping priorities and opposed interests unfold emerge locally too (they do in the medium sized organisation I run), in the end it is simply much more possible to convene local decision makers, to untangle what is going on, and to agree a better way of coordinating things.

As the world gets more complex and fast moving this argument (but not the other ones) gets even stronger.

The case for decentralising more power

So, there we are. The case for decentralising more power can and should be pursued with confidence, but it we should make it on the basis not of comforting prejudices but a single unbeatable argument.

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  • I would hate my two unforced errors to detract from what I have contributed to this issue. Eton, of course. Freudian error (?) from a former Head of a thoroughly comprehensive state school? Possibly. And "piecemeal devolution"... not derogation. Sorry, but happy to put the record straight.

  • I am heartened that you found and settled on your “good” argument for devolved decision making, Matthew. It seems to me though that this “good” argument is a function of the important insight at the heart of what you call the “bad” argument.

    You characterise the “bad” argument in such a way as to leave it open to your critique, namely that “those who judge what to do by what they see in front of them are liable to suffer from three characteristics” (characteristics that, for me, apply to the worst of our current crop of centralised decision makers), namely i) limited knowledge ii) excessive subjectivity and iii) tribal bias. The most influential tribe of all (The Eaton Tribe) suffer from a remoteness that is remarked on with great frequency in the national debate.

     “Closer to”, “proximity” and “local” should be seen as metaphors and context should offer us a clue as to their deeper significance.

    A deeper analysis (like the one you offer in setting out your “good” argument) acknowledges that “closer to” and like phrases are ambiguous and encompass proximity but also engagement, attachment, ready access to decision makers, opportunities to object, inform and influence. It is this interplay that makes it more likely that decisions will be appropriate and effective, born from a deeper understanding and shared objectives.

    Your tendency to use “can” in ways that appear to allow it to be understood as “will”, without much support for the assumption, as in, for example:-

    “Social challenges tend to have underlying causes as well as …. local expressions – a wider lens can show that some interventions work better than others.”

    “National analysts can be dispassionate but local decision makers tend to be biased in favour of local solutions….”

    …leads me to emphasise that there are no guarantees that devolved decision making will bring about the improvements we seek. The possibility for corruption in decision making at the local level (T Dan Smith, Poulson for example?) is another potential pitfall to which the current system is not immune.

    Much hangs on the quality of those elected, as it always has. There is no absolute guarantee that greater engagement and sense of influence will lead to deeper and more effective thinking in choosing from the candidates in the polls. And yes, from my own experience, local councillors are a mixed ability bunch. The best of them, though, are priceless. These are useful caveats and must be kept in mind in promoting devolution of decision making and in making it work when we get it.

    Oversight of local decision makers will be essential and Rowena’s suggestion of an auditor with teeth makes sense. I have a hankering after ofstgov or ofstpol, but that may just be because as an educationist I would delight in getting my own back on politicians for foisting a damaging accountability regime on teachers. Another caveat there!

    I envisage much debate about the relationship between the central organising structure and the local provincial assemblies (on a thoroughgoing federal solution which I prefer to the piecemeal derogation to (some) towns and cities) and anticipate that there would be a national framework to contextualise local decision making and a carefully worked out distribution of powers. We have models that can help us understand the issues involved in such countries as Canada, Australia and even here with our devolved assemblies.

    Uwe DeVrient is right to remind us that the principle of subsidiarity underpins this issue. This principle is applicable a fortiori in the realm of corporate structure where the best version of the “bad” argument (if that makes sense) and the core insight of the “good” argument come together in making the case for a major increase in co-operative structures.

    Thank you for giving us all such rich food for thought!


  • To me the observation that "Whitehall policy makers do think about the appropriate balance of central prescription and local discretion" isn't really relevant to the debate.  No doubt most central policy-makers are well-intentioned and broad-minded.  The issue is surely whether, in our medium-sized country in terms of population, powers are most appropriately distributed between the different levels of government.  The balance has surely swung too far towards the centre.  There was a joke many years ago when two civil servants from the education ministry passed each other and one asked the other for the time.  The response was "That's a matter for the local authorities".  It then became evident that the local level enjoyed no constitutional protection and central politicians seized the opportunity presented by that realisation.  This is where Adam Clarke's blog, making the case for a Citizen's Assembly on the Constitution, seems so apposite.  It is the framework that needs fixing, not people's behaviour or attitudes.

  • Definitely an interesting debate but I think we also need to consider that the current reliance on voluntary service by local politicians, albeit they do receive an allowances payment, does result in Council decision makers being dominated by the elderly. In my view this lack of diversity has a negative impact on local decision making and prioritization.

  • I think it’s an interesting debate. I believe in less centralized control and more devolution - and can see it working in Greater Manchester. However, national decisions particularly about funding have an enormous impact on what we’re able to deliver. Take the devolution of the Adult Education budget for example. Devolved to local areas and immediately cut by 40%. So we do have a better understanding of what our local economies need, but we also now have less funding.


    A much better example is devolution of health funding. Not devolution in the pure sense, but much more local influence over national funding. This means that we’re bound by national targets, but can take local decisions about how best to use funding to achieve them. This, plus the ability to join up health and social care and move money round the system eventually, can lead to real improvements in outcomes. It’s hard, it takes a long time, but ultimately means real change driven locally,

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