Ruth Lupton, Sian Peake-Jones, Kerris Cooper and Ceri Hughes
Published 21 November 2018
This paper explores recent developments in the devolution of powers to subnational governments in England and its implications for social policy making and the distribution of economic and social outcomes. It is generally agreed that England is currently an outlier among other developed nations in terms of the degree of centralisation of power within national central government, although historically local government had a much fuller role. Decentralisation of decision-making tends to be shallow, involving localized decisions on service provision, rather than deep, involving a transfer of power over policy aims and methods. Fiscal autonomy is limited. In the context of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and to some extent to London) in the last twenty years, questions have increasingly been asked about the organisation of English government, with calls for further decentralisation. In the last decade the position has begun to change, through a series of negotiated deals transferring powers to individual city-regions, the establishment of combined authorities and, from 2017, the addition of city-region mayors.
Although arising principally from an economic development motivation, devolution appears to offer new possibilities for addressing social inequalities: more effective targeting of policies towards need; a greater focus on inequalities through different political priorities; and possibly beneficial innovations in social policy given the opportunity to address issues and integrate policies and services at sub-national levels. On the other hand, in the context of austerity policies and small-state political philosophies, there are also concerns that devolution may lead to a fragmented and diminished welfare state, "postcode lotteries" and increasing inequalities as already-advantaged areas are able to capitalise on their greater assets and capacities to the benefit of their citizens while less well-favoured areas cannot. We explore these tensions in this paper through an analysis of social policy devolution to date. In the first half of the paper, we look at the picture as a whole, describing and assessing the development of devolution and discussing the evidence and debates about its importance or not for social policy. In the second half, we look closely at what is happening in practice, with a focus on Greater Manchester (GM) where devolution is most advanced. We describe the devolution process in GM, review plans and progress overall and in three contrasting policy areas (health and social care, employment, and crime and policing) and consider implications for distributional outcomes. Drawing on the insights from this case study as well as the broader evidence and debates, we conclude with some reflections on the significance of these developments for social policy-making and distributional outcomes in England in years to come