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The dangerous drive to devolution

Extra layers: Manchester has a fine town hall, but the mayor and combined authority have separate offices nearby. Julius via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Devolution is a threat to workers across England, as well as in Wales and Scotland, with the government bent on breaking up Britain into competing regions…

The North East of England is the current target in the government’s rush to divide and regionalise Britain. Given their abject failure to govern the country they must think the time is ripe to impose what the people of the region refused when asked in a referendum in 2004.

The lure of “levelling up” funding is similar to the ten previous devolution deals in England. The new authority will take a range of powers from existing combined authorities and central government.

This deal will cover Tyne and Wear, Northumberland and County Durham and will have a directly elected mayor. In exchange the government will provide funding and will allow the new body to borrow and sell assets – all subject to Treasury control.

The extra layer of government will be responsible for aspects of housing and regeneration as well as education skills and training. It will take over the transport executive for Tyne and Wear, but not other areas, and will be able to create a local transport plan and award bus franchises.

The new authority will have to reach agreement with councils in the area and Northumberland National Park on other matters remaining within their responsibility. This patchwork of powers was negotiated in private with the existing council and authorities in the same way as the previous deals.

Following on from the February 2022 Levelling Up White Paper, at least six other regions, including York and North Yorkshire, East Midlands, Norfolk and Suffolk, are promised devolution deals. Not wanting to miss the bandwagon, other areas such as Essex are scrambling to join in. And Cornwall wants to upgrade its current deal to gain an elected mayor.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is the arm of government promoting devolution, backed by the Treasury. In every case the inducement is purported additional funding for housing, transport and adult education.


The mantra is always “local people know best what their area needs”. A democratic-sounding slogan; in reality “local people” means civic leaders eager for self-promotion. And the headline funding tends to be reallocation rather than new money.

The government says that devolution deals will not be confirmed without local consultation. But that assurance lacks clarity about the way the consultation will be carried out or what happens if the outcome is against the deal.

Remembering what happened in the 2004 referendum in the North East, neither the government nor the regional politicians really want to ask the populace what they think.

Despite the best efforts of politicians, the church, union leaders, the local press, and local celebrities, the people of the North East rejected the proposal overwhelmingly by 696,000 to 197,000. They were suspicious about imposition of a further tier of government, and unconvinced of any financial benefit or improvement in areas that really mattered – de-industrialisation, unemployment, loss of skills.

Predicted savings with one unified authority were based on a fallacy – they did not take into account the cost of transition, redundancies, new IT systems and buildings and so on, estimated at over £440 million. This disingenuous approach had been evident in previous local government reorganisations. The people of the North East smelt a rat and kicked the proposal and its sleight of hand accounting into touch.

The current round of devolution does not even pretend to make savings by abolishing councils – they might object. Instead deals are tied in to the spreading web of funding powers and responsibilities.


This does not bring government closer; instead it distances people from where decisions are made. A directly elected mayor sitting at the centre of this web is not in practice accountable to the electorate. People living in London and the other cities with mayoral combined authorities will testify to that.

Mayoral power is centralised in one person. Celebrity syndrome and dictatorial attitudes grow, and the opportunities for corruption increase. It is easier for disgruntled citizens to unnerve and change the mind of a disparate body of councillors.


The government renamed the department responsible for housing and local government the “Levelling Up” department. Workers across Britain see the need to stop the decline across the whole country (not just northern England) without the patronising renaming of a government department.

Trumpeting the aim of reducing imbalances across the country, the new department has set about accelerating the break up of Britain. In practice, all “Levelling Up” amounts to is ever more direct government control of local affairs, enabled by obliging, opportunistic and zealous local bureaucrats.

When asked, people generally oppose local government reform, knowing from experience that it will lead to higher costs and lower efficiency. But this juggernaut is rolling; people will have to stir themselves to oppose it. There are some indications this is already happening.

Court threat

In Norfolk, four councils are threatening to take the county council to court over its devolution ambitions. In Truro, protesters gathered outside Cornwall County Hall when the council deliberated whether to pursue devolution, but insisting no vote be taken. The protesters’ placards read, “Let the people decide.”

The council cites cost as a reason for rejecting a referendum. And in London some borough councils are resisting the Mayor’s plans for vast expansion of the ultra low emission zone.

The Labour Party offers no alternative viewpoint. While attacking this Conservative Levelling Up program, it proposes something identical dressed up as another slogan, “Take back control” – meaning the opposite.

‘They say deals will not be confirmed without local consultation. But there’s no clarity about how the consultations will be carried out…’

In early December the Labour Party unveiled the report from its grand-sounding “Commission on the UK’s future”, headed by former prime minister Gordon Brown. Like the Conservative “Levelling Up” agenda, it pretends that the problem for areas suffering from unemployment and deindustrialisation is that “power, wealth and opportunity” are unevenly spread through the country. Of course Labour can blame “Westminster” because they are not currently in government.

So Keir Starmer, speaking on 5 January, pledged that “Massive devolution will be the centrepiece of Labour’s first legislative program in Government…. We will spread control out of Westminster”. For that, read “The tentacles of Westminster will spread out ever further”.


The two parliamentary parties are as Tweedledum and Tweedledee on this question. Voting for, or against, either will not resolve it. Their solutions for decline amount only to more decline – unless you are on the devolution gravy train.

The only way to challenge the devolution bandwagon is for people to raise their voices and demand to be listened to – not ignored and patronised. That would reverberate.