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Size doesn’t matter: The arguments for place-based devolution

This report examines the implications of future devolution for districts and smaller unitary councils, and the potential role that they can play in responding to the challenges of Covid-19 and the crucial levelling up agenda. It makes the case for greater ‘subsidiarity’ in allowing places to better determine and shape their own fate, and it considers the current arguments deployed for devolved powers, contending – as we have done before – that the crucial role of smaller cities and places is being overlooked in the rush for a ‘bigger is better’ approach.

We therefore discuss the optimal footprint for devolved powers and examine the appropriate governance for where devolution should land.

We recommend that reform should focus on:

  • Pragmatic consideration of the appropriate scale at which better social and economic outcomes can be achieved, and at a level where local areas can agree to cooperate.

  • New connections between places, within and across regions, with a relative scaling-up of powers across larger areas, to encourage ‘local and regional cohesion’.

  • Combined authorities, structured from the bottom up, using existing units of government, to form new territories that could, but need not, correspond to present or historical boundaries.

  • Institutional reform (e.g. Mayors and unitarization) where it is desired, that can address the issue of electoral inequality, to ensure a consistent ratio of councillors to population, across all authorities; and ensure parity in local accountability for the fullest devolution of powers.

  • The potential contribution that smaller units of government can make, in helping to grow economies and providing effective services, and the additional powers that may be appropriately devolved – whether as part of a wider mayoral combined authority, or not

Image by Julien Riedel
October 2020
Key recommendations of the report include:

The next phase of place-based devolution in England should establish an operating agreement that is both principle-based and practical. This should:

  • Confirm Government’s presumption to devolve as the default position.

  • Encourage institutional reform that is consistent with the scale of devolution required.

  • Ensure that size should not be a condition or obstacle to devolution.

  • Avoid a standardised approach that requires all places to accept the same deal.

  • Enable localities to decide which combined authorities they join.

  • Permit combined authorities to cooperate across administrative boundaries, where appropriate.

  • Allow places to move incrementally in accord with the best interest of place and people that live there.

  • Focus on outcomes.

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