The Differing Stories of Devolution in England, Scotland and Wales



The United Kingdom has undergone a period of constitutional reform more profound than it has seen in generations. The establishment of the Scottish Parliament above all marks the transition of the Unitary British state but to what?. The promise of stable devolved government in Northern Ireland is still a real prospect and Welsh devolution has brought a measure of autonomy to the affairs of the principality. But political devolution of this kind has yet to affect – directly at least – the lives of the most populous Britons: the English. Devolution to the “home countries” of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland marks the fulfilment by the incoming Labour Government of 1997, of a series of historical debts [ref] to the largely Labour voting inhabitants of Scotland and Wales and a desire to bring about a durable end to thirty years of civil war in Northern Ireland. The case of London is an exception in one sense – the creation of a Mayor and Authority mark a form of devolution – and another debt repaid: the fulfilment of a ten year-old commitment to reverse Mrs Thatcher’s abolition of the Greater London Council. In the event the powers of the Mayor and the Greater London Assembly have been more akin to that of an upper tier local authority than regional devolution of the kind seen in Wales. It is a far cry from the Scottish case. In fact the Government has not accepted the case for political devolution of any meaningful kind more generally in England. Indeed it is sceptical as to the need for devolution of political power at all. The debt, if there is one, to the English, is expressed in terms of the investment in improving the public services which was central to the renewal of Labour’s political philosophy.  The reform programme underway in England is an administratively driven exercise with the decisions taken by administrators and professionals whose ultimate accountability is to Ministers and to Parliament.  Over the long term, pressure towards political devolution may grow if the Scots and Welsh autonomy creates popular support for devolution in England. Similarly, central Government may be persuaded to adapt its policies for England in the light of the Scottish or other experience. There is, however, little evidence at present to suggest that these major constitutional changes will lead to a more fundamental reform of the governance in the UK in the near term.

Regional Devolution –  History:

Fall of the Labour Govt in 1979. Centralisation under Conservatives: Poll tax and abolition of the Mets. Bypassing of LAs through UDCs. Removal of Tertiary education and nationalisation of water, deregulation of buses.

1997 Labour Govt.

Manifesto – Regions
Manifesto commitment to Scottish and Welsh devolution. [prior Scottish constitutional convention].  The 1997 Labour Manifesto contained a tentative commitment to the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. The proposals for the Northern Ireland Assembly did not emerge until a year later with the publication of the Good Friday Agreement. The proposals for Northern Ireland, like those for Scotland and Wales, required referenda on the principle of devolution prior to the establishment of devolved government. [ref to second question in Scotland].

If the new labour Government’s approach to Scottish and Welsh devolution was consensual, it was more than matched by its approach in England where there was a recognition at the outset that support for such arrangements in the English regions would vary widely, and a commitment to allow referenda on regional government “in time”, in areas where there was “predominantly unitary local government” and subject to confirmation that “no additional public expenditure overall would be involved”. [ref manifesto]. During the first term of the Labour Government there was no substantive movement towards fulfilling even this modest pledge.

There was progress on the manifesto commitment to create regional chambers to coordinate planning, economic development and other activity in the regions with the formation of Regional Development Agencies overseen and scrutinised  by tripartite chambers.

In some senses the creation of a Greater London Authority was an exercise in regional government. Greater London is a city region of ** people in ** square miles. Whilst the creation of the assembly was an act of devolution, it was a relatively modest one. The Mayor of London has strategic responsibility for housing, planning and transport. Yet in Transport the Government’s proposals for the part-privatisation of the London Underground have prevailed in the Courts, while plans for housing, economic development and housing are all subject to Ministerial approval.

The experiment in London Government is a worthwhile one. The Mayor’s policies for increasing bus use and on the introduction of a congestion charge are important measures, but are more akin to local government rather than regional devolution and the GLA is treated as such in this paper.

1997 Manifesto local govt

The 1997 Manifesto promised democratic innovation for local government – principally the creation of elected mayors. Managerially, the manifesto proposed the development of  a national performance measurement and assessment system. Local authorities would in future be subject to a duty of best value: required to publish a local performance plan with targets for service improvement, with the threat of intervention to remedy failure.

1997 onwards

Devolution moved quickly in Scotland and Wales post-1997, with the Scotland Bill and Government of Wales Bills published the following year  and enacted in [ ].

Referenda were held  in [ ] 1999. Both produced results in favour of devolution – the Scottish result being rather more convincing than that in Wales. Scotland’s vote in favour was 74.3% on a 60.4% turnout. In Wales the slenderest of majorities – only 50.1% voted in favour – was obtained on a lower turnout of 50.1%. The elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly were held in 1999, two years after the Labour Government was elected.

In 2003 the second elections took place for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assemblies. The turnout rates are likely to have done little to create enthusiasm among Ministers in Westminster for devolution to the English regions as there was a sharp fall in turnouts, and this in spite of the closely fought nature of the elections. In Scotland turnout fell to 49% from 58% in 1999, and in Wales to 38% (from 46%).  The apathy which has been a feature of local government turnouts seems very quickly to have spread to the new devolved bodies.

The powers of the Scottish Parliament  include most aspects of domestic, economic and social policy including health, education, criminal law, home affairs , local government, economic development, agriculture, culture and sport. The Scottish Parliament was also given a (so far unused) tax varying power – to vary the basic rate  of income tax by up to [3%] . The Welsh Assembly has no tax-varying power and a more limited set of responsibilities with responsibility for key services such as [education and health] still accountable in part of Westminster.

The new bodies were to set a precedent in one other important respect, that of their electoral systems. For the first time for a domestic election ,both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly elections were undertaken on an a additional member system of Proportional Representation, in place of the first-past-the post system in use for every prior local poll. Following the elections to the Scottish Parliament in 2003, the new ruling Labour/Liberal coalition have agreed that Proportional Representation will be in place by 2007.


The Second Labour Term
Although there was no substantive movement on English regional devolution during the first term of the Labour Government the main advocate of the policy, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, secured a renewed commitment  to the policy and the 1997  manifesto commitment was repeated in Labour Manifesto for the 2001 General Election. Unlike in 1997 however the DPM pushed hard to secure movement on the English regional government agenda and a White Paper on English Regional Government was published in [when] . Powers [list – not really clear].  Following the publication of the White Paper the ODPM has initiated a “soundings exercise” to assess views on elected regional government in the regions. According to one recent interview he is now resigned to only one or two regions even having ballots [ref Hetherington article], a far cry from his earlier hopes [get Prescott quote]

The regional project has suffered from at least three sets of problems.

Lukewarm support within Government as to the presentational difficulties involved in creating an extra tier of local government – as evidenced by the clear signals on cost neutrality in the 1997 manifesto and the original commitment to predominantly unitary local government. In fact this has been subtly but in effect quite dramatically changed to  instance on wholly unitary local government in the shape of  prior local govt reviews for areas thinking of holding a referendum. Those seeking regional government – usually led by local government – have been asked to swallow the bitter pill of reorganising themselves out of existence before even the local electorate have been asked to opine on the principle. This in turn has created considerable tension among the political establishment in potential candidate regions, with the probable effect of slowing down moves towards devolution. This may well be a question of design rather than coincidence on the part of the Government, since forcing them to face these issues prior to devolution was always likely to have such an effect.

Secondly,  those arguing the case for regional government have been given an almost total absence of any headline-grabbing policy responsibilities. One could imagine a scenario in which would-be regional politicians might have campaigned around the impact that devolution would have on local hospitals, schools or access to regional universities. But denied these and the other service responsibilities, with light touch strategic responsibility for housing, transport and planning, the task of creating popular support has been a tough one.

The regional government project has suffered from a certain tactical naivety also. As was evident from 1979 and  the scale of challenge in creating Scottish devolution, through to the Scottish Constitutional Convention,  and the  Government’s first term wariness regarding England, devolution in Britain is a process in which the power of the executive itself is an insufficiently powerful lever. Constitutional innovation requires the development of wider coalitions of support. No Royal Commission was sought or created. There has been no constitutional convention or standing committee of the House of Commons.  There was, in other words, no attempt to create a national debate, let alone a sense of momentum or buy-in from the political establishment. Consequently individual Regional Chambers have operated in a vacuum, at the behest of the local politicians who serve on them, something which has given further fuel to the Conservative Party’s opposition to existing as well as any future English devolution. This has in turn made regional devolution a [what was Andrew Gamble’s phrase? Contested ???]. Against this context it is predictable that the North West Constitutional Convention [died – why – how]. This politicisation of the regional process – something which was largely neutered in Scotland – has created the conditions whereby the CBI among other organisations has [refused to participate] in the Regional Chambers and in the  North West, the decision of the  whole business lobby to resign from the NWRA.

What can we learn from the trajectories of regional devolution?

In short regional devolution has never been a particularly high priority for the Labour Government. In England, as in the rest of the country, the priority has been the reform of the public services. For reasons of history the Government has long since accepted that devolution to Scotland and Wales is a sine qua non of their return to power, even if at the expense of some loss of control over the reform process. Devolution to the English regions simply is not a political necessity in the way that the improvement in the public services is, particularly post-2001. Indeed, as the Scottish and Welsh experiments begin to yield their first results, the effect has almost certainly been to harden the resolve of Ministers not to let the powerful drive for reform be diverted by anyone, least of all a new breed of English regional politicians.

Devolution has already made a material difference to the institutions, policies and processes of governance, particularly in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament  took a different approach to England and Wales on two of the most politically sensitive policies of Labour’s first term: leglislating to abolish the payment of fees for nursing care for older people and to resist the levying of individually payable tuition fees for University students. It is far too early to tell what the impact of these important policies will be. Ministers’ views in Westminster vary. There is a widespread view that the Scottish budget is unsustainable in the light of these and other changes. More importantly however, has been the effect these decisions have had on the British body politic. In the short term it has made Ministers even more wary as to the merits of devolution in England. But the long term consequences may yet be more favourable. For the first time since the creation of the welfare state in the 1940s, the British government can no longer argue that there is no alternative to the painful (and generally unpopular) policies of charging for care and education; there is, in Scotland. Only in the longer term will it be possible to assess whether the costs of these decisions are either fiscally sustainable or electorally popular. If they are, the Political Parties in Westminster could pay a heavy electoral price if they fail to respond.

Local Government in England, Scotland and Wales.

What then are the signs of a more devolutionary approach to local government in England, and what difference have the devolved arrangements made to the development of local government in Scotland and Wales?

From the outset, the proposals for local government were clearer and more unambiguous. From their years in opposition Labour politicians knew that local government was in a mess. The Local Government Commission [check] and the creation of  unitary local government to which it led had, during the 1990s,  sets councils against one another. Compulsory Competitive Tendering for Council services by which the then Conservative Government had forced Councils to compete their directly-provided services in a crude price-driven competition which had reduced costs but done little to drive up quality [facts]. And turnout rates for local elections continued to fall with Councils locked into a vicious circle of diminishing responsibility, falling turnouts and  a pervading sense of decline.

The response was a wholesale modernisation of Councils at the political level – separating out the executive and scrutiny functions and the ending of the traditional system of committees viewed by many as the embodiment of the tedium of local government politics. Councils were also required to consult their electorates over the preferred form of executive leadership including, where there was evidence of support, balloting on the option of creating a directly elected Mayor.

The proposals for the administrative reform of local government were, if any thing, more far-reaching. Every local service was to be subjected to a thorough five yearly review, with the reviews undertaken by Councils themselves and validated by the independent Audit Commission who would assess how thoroughly the Council had addressed the Governments “four Cs” of: compare, consult , challenge, and compete.  The services would be assessed by performance, for which they would be given a “star-rating” of between zero and three, and by likelihood of improvement with services rated as unlikely to improve through to having excellent prospects. The overall target was that all Councils should in due course deliver services as well as those in the upper quartile of performance at the outset. For those Councils whose services were of a poor quality and where little was done to improve them, the Government took sweeping intervention powers including to enforce local authorities to contract-out their services.

It is too early to judge the success if the Best Value programme although recent  Audit Commission analysis of local government performance has established that services are improving and that  the most rapid rate of improvement is occurring in those whose level of performance was below the median level at the outset [ref]. These improvements have not yet fed through into improvements in public perceptions of local government services [MORI reference].

Those close to the first term reforms of the Labour Government agree that local government was on trial in its first term. Having diagnosed the problems of a lack of political legitimacy and leadership along with a generally inadequate performance culture and the consequential poor services, measures were put in place to remedy these ills. The problem is that the full impact of theses reforms was never likely to be felt for ten years or possibly even longer. Thus Ministers in the Education, Health and other Departments were generally unpersuaded as to the merits of allowing politically important programmes and priorities be dealt with by what they still perceived to be a failing system of local government.  The result were twofold: first the growth in a range of institutional fixes including new partnership arrangements: Crime and Disorder Partnerships, Local Strategic Partnerships for example,  and on occasions whole new delivery mechanisms too, such as the range of Action Zones and the Connexions (careers guidance and youth inclusion) service; second there was a rapid growth in the proportion of local government’s finance that is hypothecated by Government Departments from under 5% to 15% of the total which has put considerable strains on the ability of multi-purpose political authorities to manage priorities effectively.

Needless to say there was never any real question that major reforms to health: the creation of Primary Care Trusts  for example, would involve elected local government (or the proposed new regional bodies for England for that matter). Reforms in England took their lead from the market liberalising principles at work in the public sector since that 1980s – that of contracting out – the primacy of targets and Ministerial responsibility for delivery.

Labour’s second term brought important changes to these arrangements including a growing realisation that institutional tinkering imposes costs with uncertain benefits. In its place was a determination to encourage greater focus on end results with less emphasis on innovating new solutions for guaranteeing their delivery. This is perhaps best summed up by the Prime Minister’s exhortations to colleagues after the 2001 that the challenge was to match the boldness of the vision in the implementation of policy.

This new approach heralded a number of changes when applied to local government. Local Public Service agreements, whereby Councils agree to meet certain stretch targets in exchange for additional grant were introduced for every Council. There were attempts to rationalise the numerous non-executive partnerships Councils were required to attend or convene. Attempts were made to reduce the proportion of Council’s income which is hypothecated.

The main focus in local government as in health and education was on “earned autonomy” – whereby the performance of Councils, and not just their services, was graded. This creates the possibility of treating individual Councils differently – rewarding bodies that are well managed with greater autonomy and intervening in respect of those which fail. But the full panoply of control remains in reserve, even for the best councils. In this respect at least local government is like other aspects of the public service reform agenda to be discussed at the lecture tomorrow.

The reaction of local government and of the political parties to the new political management arrangements has been a generally poor one. Experimentation with Mayors has been limited  with most Councils content to stick with the status quo: indirectly elected Councils as opposed to directly elected mayors. None of the big cities has opted for a mayor. And, while there has been as little popular clamour for elected mayors as there has for regional government, the public sounding exercises undertaken in places as diverse as Liverpool, Birmingham and Bradford all found a significant proportion of the population to be in favour of a directly elected mayor.  Nor have the early referenda yielded much success. Of ** held, only * produced a yes vote. Turnouts though in general higher than for local elections were far from spectacular and, from the Government’s point of view, unwelcome results. Previously Labour North Tyneside returned a previously unknown Conservative Mayor who later resigned amidst allegations involving child pornography. Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, both Labour prior to the Mayoral election (though the former in a minority administration) returned respectively a Mayor who stood on the platform of the local football club’s mascot, a monkey, and in Middlesbrough, a former police officers whose career had been cut short following accusations of [misconduct].

Elsewhere results followed traditional party lines with senior Councillors from incumbent parties being elected as Mayor.

Nothing in the Mayoral experience to date suggests that the experiment is a failure. It is hardly surprising that  Councillors have shown little enthusiasm for giving up their power to Mayors. Nor should it be surprising that independents won some elections. Indeed one of the intended effects of the new arrangements was to make it easier for people to become involved in local politics though in this sense it is unfortunate that a self-confessed joke candidate beat prominent local businessman in Hartlepool. There are sufficient Mayors in place for an evaluation of the new political management arrangements to be undertaken, though it is far too early to draw any conclusions as to the effectiveness or electoral appeal of Mayors. There is one conclusion that may be drawn. It is that the Mayoral experiment has done the cause of  local devolution considerable damage in the short term, serving as it has so well, to re-enforce the perception of local politics as a continuing problem rather than the solution to the Government’s public service headaches.

In Scotland and Wales – different – BV al but abolished in theses areas – so the information is not in place to make the assessments of Councils. What else?


The first and main conclusion of this paper is that the British Government is at best deeply ambivalent regarding the role that devolved democratically elected government can play in the public service reform agenda. In the case of local Government this is likely to mean that local Government will play a marginal role in the big national services such as health and education (with the possible exception of some care services). And, while the Government accepts that local politicians play a an important community  leadership, there is little enthusiasm for further, regional , political devolution.

Local Government has been the subject of repeated central innovation.  None have  had the chance yet to prove themselves in the frenetic pace of reform demanded by the electoral cycle. In substantive terms it is simply too early to tell if the approach the government has adopted is the right one.

In one respect at least the current reform agenda ought to favour local government. There is now a clear realisation on the part of Government that effective local services are rarely delivered by monolithic national bureaucracies. The reform principles upon which tomorrow’s talk focuses therefore encourage central government to devolve responsibility to the front line. The problem is that the front line tends not to be Councils but a wide range of alternative providers whose accountability id upwards to Ministers, creating the likelihood of a widespread “silo=based” devolution.

So Britain remains an essentially centralised Country. It remains an almost totally centralised country in respect of England. This paper has set out the compelling reasons why this is likely to remain the case. Regionally, a lack enthusiasm on the ground, falling turnouts for elections in the devolved countries and scepticism as the value that local and regional politicians can add are likely to lead to limited progress in the creation of regional elected assemblies. Once created, their powers will in any event be limited.

Local government is still on trial. There is nothing to suggest that the Government (or the vast majority of Councils for that matter) thinks local Government is in any way pivotal to the national priorities for its second term.

The implication therefore is that the political devolution which has taken place is not the thin end but the fat end of the wedge. Remaining devolution will be part of a continuing contractorisation of the state – though there will probably be less institutional tinkering than previously.

It follows from this that there is little prospect of witnessing in the UK the kind of large scale decentralisation seen in Italy. Decentralision of this kind requires the centre to surrender responsibility for the services: for the inputs and the outputs. There is little sign of either. The Government  shows no sign of yet being convinced that political devolution has an important role to play in improving public services. With little sense of regional identity in England and local government still very much in recovery after years of neglect, it is unwilling to entrust this responsibility to any political authority other than itself.

di Mike Emmerich (director of institute of public and economic governance University of Manchester)