Speak for England?

England needs a ‘council of mayors’ and Secretary of State to embed English devolution at the heart of Whitehall – report

England has a level of centralised control comparable to far smaller nations, yet the country remains a “ghost-like presence” barely acknowledged by Whitehall and Westminster, a new report suggests.

Experts call for commitments to English devolution by 2030, along with a new Office for England and council of metro mayors to help overcome challenges posed by England’s "dysfunctional" governance.

England is chronically over-centralised, governed by an incoherent tangle of institutions, and suffers from a “democratic deficit” as a result – all of which jeopardises plans for English devolution, according to a new report drawing on data from across the UK and Europe.

Consensus for devolution – the transfer of power from central government to local leaders – continues to grow: Sunak’s government offers “trailblazer” deals with mayors, while the Labour-commissioned Brown review set out extensive plans to give power to communities. 

Political scientists from Cambridge University, working with the Institute for Government, are calling for cross-party commitments to “meaningful devolution” in every corner of England by 2030, but say that major changes are needed in central government if they are to be achieved.

These include a new Whitehall department, the Office for England – complete with Secretary of State – along with an “English Devolution Council” to give metro mayors a strong voice in British politics, and new legislation to “codify” the rights and responsibilities of local government.

The report argues that the “deeply ingrained habit of conflating England and the UK” at the heart of British government needs to end if England is to reboot local democratic and economic growth.

“England is one of the most centrally governed countries in the developed world, yet the nature of its administration is a source of confusion and frustration to its citizens,” said report co-author Prof Michael Kenny from the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

“There is palpable disillusionment with the grip of the London-centric UK government, especially when you travel further away from Westminster,” said Kenny. “This has created a powerful current of democratic disenchantment.” 

“There is a strong case for a new Office for England along with a cabinet committee, to bring greater cohesion to English governance within Whitehall, and oversee long-promised devolution.”

Institutional ‘incoherence’

The report reveals how decades of central “policy churn” directed at England’s regions and services have created a morass of clashing borders between NHS care boards, education commissions, local authorities and policing jurisdictions, to name but a few.

Even clearly interdependent services have conflicting boundaries, such as policing with the NHS or fire and rescue, or environment agencies with forestry commissions.

“Every department and agency seems to be using a different territorial map of England,” said report co-author Dr Jack Newman, a research associate at the Bennett Institute.

“This is a huge barrier to revitalising deprived places, and a major constraint on local economic development across England.”

Half of England uses a two-tier system, with county and district councils, while the rest has a single local authority.

Some areas also fall under Combined Authorities, with varying degrees of control over transport or housing, as well as networks of “Local Enterprise Partnerships”.

Yet two-thirds of residents have no neighbourhood-level representation – parish councils cover 91% of England’s territory, but only 36% of the population.

The illusion that Whitehall’s largest departments are UK-wide adds to the disorientation. Many are almost entirely dedicated to England since devolution of power to constituent UK nations.

For example, the Department for Education is now completely “English”, while just 3% of the budget for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs relates to non-English responsibilities. The Department for Health and Social Care spends just 0.5% of its budget outside of England.       

Even most of the Home Office now only deals with England and Wales. Yet major departments are billed as a core part of the UK state, with any mention of England absent from most government communications.

‘Democratic deficit’ and over-centralisation

This “incoherence” has helped create a democratically disenfranchised England. At no point in the last half century has local election turnout in England hit 50%. In the last 25 years, it has rarely risen above 40% – markedly lower than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland since devolution.

Since the 1970s, local election turnout in England has been far lower than in nations with similar economic strength (France and Italy) and culture (Ireland), as well as those with greater local autonomy (Sweden and Finland).  

Local election turnout in England and Europe.

Local election turnout in England and Europe.

“Local councils in England are excessively accountable upwards to Whitehall,” said Newman. “Their line to the people can be a weak one, reflected in declining levels of participation at local elections.”

The report shows that Whitehall’s grip on power ranks England alongside far smaller nations for centralised control. England has a population of 55 million people, yet its lack of localised funding and authority is equivalent to nations of 5-10 million people, such as Finland and Latvia.

With the exception of Turkey, England is the only large nation in the OECD to have such a centralised system of government.

“The British system has at its heart a power-hoarding culture, and centralisation is a deeply-rooted reflex,” said Kenny. “Its constitution makes Westminster supreme.”

England: delivering devolution

The team behind the report call for an independent commission on the future of English government. “This would bring together leading experts from across the political divide, enabling the government to face up to glaring weaknesses in England’s governing structures,” said Kenny.

All political parties should commit to a 2030 deadline for making devolution deals across England, ensuring that no place is “left behind”.

The report also calls for institutional changes to safeguard English devolution by representing English voices within central government. This includes a council of metro mayors, with delegates based in London to channel regional interests into Westminster. 

Primarily, a new Office for England should be formed, headed by a new Secretary of State with a seat in the Cabinet. “These Offices are repositories of knowledge and relationships. An England Office would be the missing puzzle piece for the establishment of a Department for the Union,” said Kenny. The Secretary of State for England would also head up a new Cabinet Committee.

Added Newman: “In a country as centralised as England, devolution can only be delivered if reform begins in Whitehall.”