Publication Devolution Machinery of government 3 January, 2024

Devolve by default: decentralisation and a redefined Whitehall

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At present, a great deal of Whitehall’s time and resources are absorbed by unnecessary centralisation: micromanagement of purely local affairs, management of bid-in pots for local actors, and the development of policy which would be better handled differently from place to place.

To change this, a new approach to devolution will be required. This paper presents an analysis of the current barriers to effective devolution, identifying four ‘gaps’ between Whitehall’s expectations and its perception of local systems, which together prevent useful decentralisation:

  • Capacity Gap: Many parts of England lack regional governance structures, and existing councils face resource constraints, making the prospect of devolution challenging
  • Capability Gap: Even where regional authorities exist, there is often a lack of confidence in their ability to effectively manage devolved powers
  • Accountability Gap: Persistent reliance on central oversight due to perceived or actual weaknesses in local accountability mechanisms
  • Culture Gap: A 'power-hoarding' bias within Whitehall, partly due to a lack of understanding and suspicion towards devolved bodies

In response to these ‘gaps’, the report sets out a new framework for devolution decisions and the assessment of local systems, alongside a range of recommendations.

By enhancing the capabilities of local governments and promoting a devolution-friendly environment within Whitehall, policymakers can embrace the concept of 'devolving by default' as a fundamental principle for future governance reforms.