Redefining Whitehall: how devolution can fix our broken system of government

English local government is on the brink of a major financial crisis, one with the potential to drastically shift the course of events in the election year of 2024. If these dominoes fall, there will be major implications for our public services.

The chair of the Office for Local Government points to mismanagement and governance issues in the affected local authorities, and of course these have been a factor.

But this crisis also has a basis in a deeper problem. It is perhaps not surprising if some parts of the local government sector – after facing years of fiscal retrenchment, unfunded mandates, local democratic deficits, growing and ever-more-complex levels of demand on its services – should start to buckle under the pressure.

Our local authorities are tasked with some of the most challenging aspects of service delivery. But they do not have the autonomy to play to local strengths, or change how they raise funds, or arrange their own approaches. This makes England an international outlier. In almost any other comparable context, local and regional government is better resourced, more capable, and able to pursue its objectives in line with the priorities of local people.

It is not only local government that feels the strain of the hyper-centralised English system. It also has the effect of burdening Whitehall with unsustainable micromanagement. Too often, central government sees its bandwidth consumed by decisions and policies which, almost anywhere else, would be managed closer to the people they affect most. Civil servants with no proximity or practical connection dictate the minutiae of local governance, developing policies which are expected  – somehow – to work as well in Hartlepool as in Harlow.

Our new report, Devolve by default: Decentralisation and a redefined Whitehall offers a stark diagnosis and a bold prescription: a radical program of devolution would not merely be beneficial for our creaking system of government, but necessary.

The current system demands that central government micromanage local affairs, consuming vast amounts of capacity and detracting from its ability to address strategic, long-term concerns. The inefficiencies are evident: resources misallocated, opportunities missed, and services that are out of touch with local needs. We spoke to senior civil servants who reported teams of officials organising and evaluating submissions to funding pots which should never have been ‘owned’ by central government in the first place, or wasting time designing strategies for the layout of local parks, taskforces for promoting chess-playing, and programmes for the reduction of littered chewing gum.

Local authorities can’t change local road rules, or change local meeting patterns, or change their own workforces’ working hours without a ticking-off from Whitehall. This isn’t only ridiculous – it means that central government’s precious time and capacity is being wasted.

Devolution offers a pathway out of the current impasse. By shifting powers to more localised structures, we can reduce the administrative burden on Whitehall, allowing it to focus on national and strategic concerns. Local governments can become more responsive, efficient, and aligned with the needs of their communities.

Devolve by default sets out a new framework for evaluating the readiness of local systems to take on more of the workload that currently hamstrings the centre. To make this possible, new structures will be needed.

Government policymakers will have to start asking themselves – and each other – what aspects of their work would be much better handled at smaller and more local scales, and we recommend that this become a systematic component in the work of government departments.

Meanwhile, it is crucial to continue – and accelerate – the work of introducing the ‘missing tier’ in England’s governance. Most countries of comparable size and complexity have a regional tier to manage larger-scale planning and strategic decisions which are not a comfortable fit for central or local government. England doesn’t have this – in some ways, it never has – and the lass concerted effort to introduce functional regions was shelved in the Blair years (after a victory scored by none other than Dominic Cummings).

Now, combined authorities are rolling out – but they will need a firmer footing, and a better approach than the current glacial and badly-incentivised dealmaking, to one day cover all of England.

The current financial crisis engulfing local authorities is a symptom of a deeper malaise in our system of governance. The cure is a radical redistribution of power through England: devolution by default that empowers local governments and redefines Whitehall. This should be a central part of the policy debate in the next general election – and then, perhaps, the political appetite will finally be in place to get Whitehall focused on the things that only it can do well. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.