RSA: English towns need levelling-up with cities on devolution

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RSA calls for more more powers for towns

  • RSA calls for more more powers for towns.
  • New Populus poll suggests majority in England would support an elected Mayor for their area, and the public wants to see local decision-making on more issues.  
  • Housing is England's top priority for devolution, followed by education and transport.
  • RSA says councils should introduce participatory budgeting, community engagement processes, citizens juries, deliberative polling, citizens inquiries and focus groups in return for new powers from central government. 

Towns and rural areas in England must benefit from the next wave of devolution alongside cities, with a majority of all people in England wanting greater local decision-making, according to a think-tank. 

Boris Johnson plans to devolve more powers from central government to local government, especially in the ‘red wall’.  

Meanwhile Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy has said towns must control issues like public transport and Keir Starmer has called for English regions to have more powers in a federal United Kingdom. 

Two-thirds of English people live in areas without an elected Mayor, but the lack of agreement between central and local governments over whether this should be a requirement.

This means rural areas, towns and smaller cities in England risk being left-behind on growth, public sector investment and the freedom to develop local solutions to problems, the RSA warns.  

At the same time, devolution to city regions needs to press ahead, ‘levelling-up’ should not mean Britain’s big cities stand still: they need to level-up with the kind of powers exercised in London and rival cities overseas.

A poll carried out by Populus for the RSA looks at what the English public would like to see next: 

  • On most social policy issues, people want to see issues decided more locally: just 18% agree the balance between local and national government is ‘about right’. Broken down by issue, people want to see housing decided at a local level (61% say it should be more locally decided, versus 18% who say more national), followed by schools (52%-23%), transport (50%-24%), policing (49%-26%), social care (48%-28%), planning/economic development (46%-23%), training/skills (37%-27%) and culture (36%-22%).  Only on healthcare (36%-40%) and climate change (12%-61%) do people back a national approach.  
  • Mayors are generally supported by English voters…: 54% support or would support a Mayor for their area, with 26% opposed. Of the different models on offer, 25% preferred the ‘Greater Manchester’ model, where the Mayor makes decisions jointly with local council leaders; 18% back the ‘London model’ of a strong Mayor with a directly elected scrutiny body, while 11% support a citizen-led approach.  
  • ….But there is little ambition for Mayors to be imposed: 50% say that local government and central government must agree a devolution deal for it to go ahead.  
  • Councils must do more to engage residents in innovative ways: 55% think “people like me” have little say over Westminster decisions, but only very slightly fewer – 52% - think the same of local councils. This shows that while people much prefer local solutions, councils must do much more to engage residents in these decisions as part of any devolution deal.  

The RSA calls for the government to proceed with new devolution deals across England, but push for greater innovation from councils in how they involve residents in decisions, arguing participatory budgeting, community engagement processes, citizen juries, deliberative polling, citizen inquiries and focus group could all be used much more by councils. 

The poll will be launched at the Innovating Local Democracy Conference – a week-long series of events running from 27-31 January and being hosted by the RSA at the People’s History Museum – the national museum of democracy – in Manchester. Events include an Innovation in Democracy conference run by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) which will be addressed by Baroness Barran and feature a number of local citizens’ assemblies on climate change. 

Towards the end of the week, 80 international delegates from more than  30 different countries will arrive in the city for an annual convention of democratic innovation that will be addressed by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham.  

A full report by the RSA looking at how England can be rebalanced will be published next month. 


Ed Cox, director of power and place at the RSA, said: 

“Mayors have quickly become champions for English cities, but the consequence of a lopsided devolution is that our towns, rural areas and smaller cities risk falling further behind our cities, and city devolution itself has stalled.   

“At the same time, the public clearly want to see a more local approach than today in most policy areas, but there’s little evidence that councils are much better than national government at engaging the public. 

“This means we need to see much more democratic innovation from councils of the kind being used in towns and cities all over the world, in exchange for new powers from central government – including the possibility of a Mayor. 

“Manchester – the home of this week’s International Week of Democratic Innovation – has historically been at the cutting edge of democratic reform in Britain, and once again it is setting the pace as it welcomes visitors from places like Madrid, Melbourne and Montreal where citizens’ assemblies are now used as a matter of routine alongside political decision-making.” 

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said:

“Here in Greater Manchester we’ve wasted no time in using our unique devolution deal to do things differently.

“As elected Mayor, I’ve worked with partners across the towns and cities of Greater Manchester to change the way we think about issues like ending rough sleeping and helping young people access opportunities with free bus travel.  

“For too long, too much decision-making has been conducted in a top-down manner. The result, as we now know, is one of the most politically centralised and regionally unequal countries of its kind in the world today.

“By devolving powers and funding to towns and cities we can reverse this trend, working with residents, businesses, voluntary groups and others to find local solutions to some of the biggest challenges we face as a country: delivering health and social care, tackling climate change, and supporting good, secure jobs that pay a real living wage.”




Ash Singleton, Head of Media & Communications, RSA: [email protected], 07799 737 970.  



Survey methodology: 

Populus conducted an online sample of 1786 18+ adults who live in England between 22 and 23 January 2020. Data is weighted to be representative of the population of Great Britain. Targets for quotas and weights are taken from the National Readership Survey, a random probability F2F survey conducted annually with 34,000 adults.  Populus is a founder member of the British Polling Council and abides by it rules.  For further information see     




The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) is an independent charity which believes in a world where everyone is able to participate in creating a better future.    

Through our ideas, research and a 30,000 strong Fellowship, we are a global community of proactive problem solvers, sharing powerful ideas, carrying out cutting-edge research and building networks. We create opportunities for people to collaborate, influence, and demonstrate practical solutions to realise change.   

Our work covers a number of areas including the rise of the 'gig economy', robotics & automation; education & creative learning; and reforming public services to put communities in control. 

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  • This is very interesting. It reflects closely the views held - and expressed! - by those who took part in the Market Towns Initiative (MTI) between 2000 and 2005ish. If you're interested in the MTI, these papers discusses aspects of it: and What goes round, comes round perhaps ...

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