Understanding the 'devolution revolution'

This year's ICE State of the Nation (SoN) report is focusing on the impact of increased devolution on UK infrastructure policy development and delivery.

New Street station in Birmingham. The city will be one of several to directly elect a new mayor from 2017. Image: Bs0u10e01, via Wikimedia Commons
New Street station in Birmingham. The city will be one of several to directly elect a new mayor from 2017. Image: Bs0u10e01, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Updated: 05 February, 2016
  • Author: Ben Goodwin, ICE Policy Manager

This marks a departure from the sector specific focus of previous reports and calls for a slightly different approach to be used at the outset. Our starting point is the theme of devolution rather than infrastructure itself.

As the Government’s ‘devolution revolution’ speeds up, ICE wants to better understand the risks and opportunities that this poses to the UK’s core infrastructure sectors: energy, flood risk management, transport, waste and water.

Devolution in context

Devolution within the UK is multi-layered. It refers both to the range of powers that have been transferred from the UK Parliament to the devolved nations and in turn those passed down to local governments. It is also asymmetric, in so far as that devolution at different administrative levels has differed in breadth and depth; it has been a largely piecemeal affair.

Devolution from the UK Parliament to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales began in the late 1990’s under New Labour and is ongoing today. Many aspects of infrastructure policy are now controlled by Holyrood, Stormont and Cardiff Bay respectively.

Devolution to local government has occurred more recently (with the exception of London). In England, this has been through a range of City Region and Combined Authority settlements. For example, fiscal powers and control over significant areas of transport policy are to be passed down as part of the Liverpool and Sheffield City Region settlements, while similar arrangements have been reached for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the West Midlands Combined Authority.

In Wales and Northern Ireland, reforms to local government have meant a reduction (or in the case of Wales a potential reduction) in the number of local councils, alongside a handing down of some controls over infrastructure policy. City Deals, like the Glasgow and Clyde Valley agreement, are also being sought in Scotland.

Joined-up thinking?

There is plenty of discussion on how devolution should look going forward. Local government and business groups are at the forefront; positioning devolution in England as invariably positive.

Through devolution, county and local councils groups have argued that a more effective ‘whole-place’ approach to infrastructure, strategic planning and housing can be delivered. Calls for greater fiscal devolution, transport and skills budgets are all made.

However, these have not necessarily been holistic in nature; in so far as there are practical and conceptual gaps in how the various levels of government tie-up under devolution.

Devolution is being delivered through new Combined Authorities and City Regions, but there doesn’t seem to be much appreciation of their impact on existing structures of local government.

Points of accountability – who do I call?

Central government has traditionally been nervous in its approach to devolution because of the varying provision of leadership, accountability and capacity to deliver across local government. By extension, deciding which policy areas to devolve is difficult.

There have been suggestions that central government should retain an oversight role as devolution hots up; steering local government in the direction of high-level policy outcomes. But who is accountable when something goes wrong with a devolved area of policy – the devolved authority or central government?

Questions that SoN is seeking to explore

Through a series of iterative evidence gathering rounds - from regional workshops and online surveys to expert focus groups and public opinion polling - ICE's State of the Nation report will investigate how UK infrastructure can get the most out of devolution.

ICE will be answering some specific questions:

  • How should multiple levels of government be joined-up in order to deliver future infrastructure policy most effectively?
  • Where should ultimate policy accountability be located?
  • How can national infrastructure policy objectives be squared with local needs?
  • What safeguards should be put in place to ensure that infrastructure provision is equitable throughout the UK?

The final report will be published in June 2016. In the meantime look out for blogs, ICE press releases and follow us on twitter.