Y-PERN Briefing Note: What can we learn from the international evidence on devolution? 

In this briefing, Dr Neil Barnett (Y-PERN Policy Fellow for Yorkshire & Humber Councils) takes a broad look at the international trend towards devolving powers to regions and the evidence for its overall benefit.

In recent decades, there has been an international trend towards devolving powers or duties to sub-national tiers of government as best practice, promoted by a range of bodies such as the IMF, World Bank, and OECD, the EU, and influential think tanks.

The review of evidence reveals a number of key themes which shape current understanding of devolution to regional and sub-regional bodies. These include whether it ‘works’, what are its diverse effects, how we can capture and understand its beneficial outcomes (both in economic terms and the well-being of citizens), and does it enhance democracy?  

Our review indicates that the evidence reviewed is contradictory, and is based on differing methodological approaches and focus. This means a definitive answer to each of the questions above is not possible, with a more concise answer being – ‘it depends’. The evidence is often circumstantial, meaning it is difficult to establish a firm relationship between any particular scale of governance and outcomes.

Assessing the effects of devolution is thus dependant on a series of questions, including: what form does it take? where and when is it taking place and why? and who is involved and how do they interact? 

Treating international ‘lessons’ with caution 

(1) What is studied differs; sometimes it is regions and sub-regions, which can cover widely differing geographical sizes and populations, and at other times cities or metropolitan areas.

Importantly, a variety of methodologies are applied to different countries, even if selected as ‘similar’ for comparison purposes. Furthermore, ‘similar’ countries such as those across the OECD and the EU have differing constitutional, political, economic and social histories and contemporary contexts. This raises the question; where we are looking and what are the most appropriate international comparator case studies? 

(2) The terminology differs both in terms of how different sub-state geographies are described and the multilevel (re)distribution of governmental powers in different international case studies.

International literature most commonly focuses on decentralisation of administrative, fiscal, and political powers. Pike et. al, provide a helpful ‘sliding scale’ or ‘spectrum’ of decentralisationi

In the UK, the term ‘devolution’ has been attached to the agenda of sub-national re-organisation. The scale of decentralisation is strongly connected to when the UK government has sought to undertake reform.

Since the late 1990s, ‘asymmetric devolution’ has seen full control over a diverse range of policy areas, and some legislative, welfare, and fiscal powers, to the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and to a lesser extent the Northern Ireland Assembly.

In England, the creation of a piecemeal patchwork of sub-regional Combined Authorities since 2010 is more closely aligned to political decentralisation.

This raises questions as to the overarching intention of decentralisation in the UK and why does the initiative exist? 

(3) Decentralisation, then, occurs to varying degrees in different states (including the UK).

In practice, it is rare for there to be ‘full’ (federal or confederal) devolution, or self-rule; more often we see shared rule. Measuring these varying degrees means that proxy measures of devolved or autonomous powers have to be used. Whilst these have become quite sophisticated (see for example the Local Autonomy Index (LAI)) they inevitably involve some degree of subjectivity. 

(4) In reality, in most states there are several levels of sub-national governance. The specifics of place and geography are key, meaning that ‘lessons’ from other international contexts are limited in value. 

In the UK, devolved sub-state Multi-Level Governance (MLG) systems are highly complex and irregular, and do not function in strict hierarchical, scaler fashion.

For example, Combined Authorities (CAs) in England, interact with local authorities and other organisations at a variety of scales. While each hold some decentralised powers, these are not consistent in their distribution, and CAs are dependent on other levels of government for implementation. Much depends on the actual practices of inter-level relationships, requiring fine grained knowledge not just of formal structures but of informal relationships; highlighting the importance of understanding who is involved, at what level of government, and how they interact.

What do we know? Impacts of decentralisation in different policy areas 

Research on specific policy areas underlines the importance of recognising the caveats outlined above, but we can also find some valuable ‘take-aways’ from reviewing international evidence: 

  1. The Economy: With respect to economic growth, impacts of decentralisation depend on its form, and context and purpose of reform. The relative state of the macro or ‘national’ economy however is key. This noted, once popular assumptions about cities being ‘engines of growth’ have been superseded by place-based ‘polycentric’ approaches which recognise the importance of multi-level institutional arrangements, and wider inter-relationships of cities, towns and rural areas. Moreover, it is clear that the particular combinations of administrative, fiscal and political decentralisation are important in terms of whether they complement each other, or not, in particular places. 
  2. Productivity & Inequality: There is some evidence of positive impacts on productivity of decentralisation to areas with an over-arching geographical co-ordinating capacity, but also a lack of clarity as to what scale this should cover. Contradictory impacts are found on inequality, where degrees of autonomy have been found to increase, and at other times decrease, spatial disparities. Effects on the delivery of a range of public services are similarly mixed.  
  3. Health: Impacts on health have proven hard to isolate from inter-related social, economic and cultural factors, and, as in other policy areas, causality is hard to prove. Again, the importance of context, pre-existing conditions, and complementarities between policy interventions is evident.  
  4. Democracy: There is surprisingly little explicit evidence of the democratic impacts. Intuitively, decentralised units should bring power ‘closer’ to people and stimulate greater democratic engagement and participation. Most evidence refers, though, to local government (i.e., below sub-regional level), and is largely inconclusive. 

Place, Institutional arrangements and ‘quality of governance’ matter. 

Having been presented with a lengthy and complex range of evidence, it is possible to state that ‘the Jury’ is not only out but is most likely confused. Sifting through international evidence is not wholly a frustrating exercise though; there are some broad but clear messages.  

Firstly, although we can’t assign benefits clearly to particular scales, we can state that it is the mix that matters. Decentralisation takes a variety of forms and it is the place-specific complementarities, or disjunctures, which produce positive and negative effects.  

Secondly, ‘place-based’ approaches are necessary but should not been seen to be in strict dichotomy with wider, national, distributional ones. The evidence points implies that decentralisation should take place within a coherent national policy framework (both across England and the UK), with sufficient freedoms and flexibilities at sub-state national level to allow for local knowledge to be utilised and for place-sensitive policies to emerge within an overarching institutional framework. 

Thirdly, following on form this, in all of the policy areas above, it is clear that institutions and the quality of governance are key influences. Both terms have formal definitions but also refer to a wider range of relationship-based practices and networks of interactions. Institutional settings provide the support, legal frameworks, rules, norms and conditions of behaviour of everyday practices which make the complex environment of MLG function or otherwise.  

Getting the right ‘fit’ of these things is dependent on political and cultural settings, along with historical legacies left by previous reforms (as is clear in the complex governance system in Yorkshire, and Humber for example). There is need to also acknowledge that devolution in itself is not a panacea, and its processes and overarching purpose need to be worked at and allowed to evolve with regards to what, where, when, why, who, and how. Reviewing the international literature therefore emphasises a need to focus on practices in actual settings, and towards behaviours and agency of the actors involved in devolution across Yorkshire and Humber. 

Next Steps 

Further briefings on the evolving evidence in the UK and related issues of local governance in the Yorkshire & the Humber region are to follow.  

Photo by Lewis Ashton: https://www.pexels.com/photo/aerial-view-of-the-staithes-harbour-north-yorkshire-england-10413677/