The Week

The Week 17 May 2024

Simon Kaye
Director of Policy

Another week where it feels like there’s too much to write about — so we have chosen to focus on devolution.

Former MPs and cabinet ministers John Denham and David Lidington published their proposals for improving the local governance of England this week. Pleasingly, they also took the time to produce a draft Bill, setting out a specific approach for getting their ideas onto the statute books.

Like other contributors to this policy debate, Denham and Lidington are concerned at the extent of England’s overcentralisation. Reform’s Devolve by default’, published in January, identified the lack of a consistent regional tier as a major blocker against further devolution, because navigating partially devolved policy for a small selection of important places would ultimately create more, not less, work within Whitehall. Denham and Lidington, by contrast, think the focus should be on local, rather than regional, authorities.

While they are very clear about the importance of subsidiarity and hyper-local approaches on the one hand, and are advocates of combined authorities as a necessary strategic layer on the other, their proposals place a focus on upper-tier and unitary local authorities as the layer that should be empowered by law to “draw down” more powers from Whitehall.

This makes some sense. Upper-tier and unitary local authorities are the closest that England currently has to a consistent, nation-wide layer of sub-national governance. Devolving to that level would resolve the ‘consistency’ blocker we identified in our research.

There remains genuine and ongoing disagreement about the best means, form, and scale-unit for achieving those shared objectives. With a general election on the way, the model for future devolution is still up for grabs.

Watch out for Reform’s own more developed views in the coming months!

Read of the week..

I was fascinated to read the new paper from Community Catalysts, produced in partnership with a coalition of universities, and co-authored by our very own Reform Scholar Jon Burchell. The paper uses mainly qualitative methods to examine the impact of community-based projects such as Local Area Coordination (an approach originating from Australia where local authorities work with specially trained staff who engage directly with communities in a ‘strengths-based’ way with the aim of preventing the need for public services).

Crucially, this piece also creates the foundation for a quantitatively informed ‘cost consequence analysis’ approach to measuring the impact of such approaches. This is important: a great deal of the innovative work undertaken by local authorities in direct collaboration with communities is only supported by weak or anecdotal evidence, partly because the effect of preventative practices is hard to demonstrate (just as it is hard to ‘prove’ a negative). There’s still a long way to go in bridging this evidence gap, but the effort here is very welcome.