What do people think of devolution?

Devolution has already transformed how the UK is governed, and will continue to as city regions gain more powers. These changes will affect the services we use every day, like transport and other infrastructure – but what do people think of this ‘devolution revolution’?

Birmingham New Street station. The city will gain new powers in April as part of the West Midlands combined authority. (Image: Bs0u10e01, via Wikimedia Commons)
Birmingham New Street station. The city will gain new powers in April as part of the West Midlands combined authority. (Image: Bs0u10e01, via Wikimedia Commons)
  • Updated: 26 February, 2016
  • Author: Gavin Miller, ICE Policy Manager

As part of the evidence gathering for ICE’s forthcoming State of the Nation: Devolution report, ComRes were commissioned to conduct a survey asking members of the public questions on infrastructure and devolution in England.

People think devolution is positive…

The online survey of 1,724 adults was carried out in February. As shown in the first chart below, it found that, in general, people in England are positively disposed towards devolution.

A majority of people agreed there should be more devolution across England, compared to a third of people who said it should be slowed down. This appears to be because devolution is seen by a majority to boost local economies without making local services less efficient.

Attitudes to devolution
Attitudes to devolution

That devolution to the English regions is popular in principle may seem surprising. In 2004, the Labour government held what was supposed to be the first of a series of referendums on regional assemblies. When the idea was roundly defeated, the remaining planned polls were abandoned.

The new devolution settlements are different – smaller, generally city-focused areas, with powers centred on transport and economic development.

Devolution can also be seen to have transformed other parts of the UK – both the nations and London – so the new settlements may be seen as less of a leap in the dark. Also, and potentially crucially, as the new combined authorities will not have assemblies, they are less likely to be seen as just another layer of government.

…and know what it should involve…

Looking more closely at the potential for devolution, a majority of English adults think it will have a positive effect on a wide range of infrastructure-related services including integrated travel tickets, skills funding and flood management. However, there seems to be less desire to allow local control over business rates.

Per cent thinking devolution would have positive impact on…
Per cent thinking devolution would have positive impact on…

Alongside agreement that devolution is ‘a good thing’, there seems to be an understanding of what should and shouldn’t be devolved with most people saying central government should make decisions on new motorways, power stations and train lines or stations.

In comparison, people are more evenly split over wind and solar farms and fracking with a small majority saying they should be the responsibility of local government. The largest majority was for bus franchising coming under local control.

Should decisions be made at a national or local level?
Should decisions be made at a national or local level?

…but want a say

This appears to show people have an understanding of devolution and what it means – that it is not a blanket process but one that is more suitable to some sectors than others. We can’t tell from this survey but what we do know is there is a strong desire for any devolution to be voted on.

Should local people vote to decide whether powers are devolved to their area?
Should local people vote to decide whether powers are devolved to their area?

This is understandable as all previous devolution settlements – whether to the UK nations or within England – were preceded by polls. Despite this, the recently passed Devolution and Cites Act, which is the guiding legislation for current English devolution, does not talk about referendums.

For now the devolution process seems to be welcomed, however this good will might evaporate if the new combined authorities are seen to be imposed

ICE’s State of the Nation: Devolution report will be published in June 2016.

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