New report calls for ‘real devolution’ to end ‘democratic deficit’ in English local government
The report, Democracy Made in England, sets out a number of proposals for real devolution of powers – outlining the principles and values that should underpin any devolution plans to put citizens, not Westminster, at the heart of decision making on how communities are governed.
The ERS also set out a series of concrete reforms calling for a clear framework for devolving power to local authorities, reforming English local government elections with proportional representation and the creation of an elected House of Lords with representation from all nations, regions and localities of the UK.
The report comes as new ERS survey data reveal over two thirds (68%) of local councillors in England feel they do not have sufficient powers to represent the needs of their communities and 65% believe local people should be more involved in decision making.
In a survey of almost 800 local representatives from across England conducted as part of the research for Democracy Made in England, the ERS found growing support for moving the balance of power away from Westminster and to communities across the country.
Exclusive new ERS survey research shows :
- Over two-thirds (68%) of local representatives feel they do not have sufficient powers to represent the needs of their community.
- 70% called for decisions to be made in partnership between the national and local levels and implemented locally
- 65% of local representatives think citizens should be more involved in making decisions about their local area
The ERS are calling for parties to back new proposals for an overhaul of English local government – with a plan for genuine and democratic devolution underpinned by principles and values that put communities, not Westminster, in the driving seat.
The Society have issued the call to reform local democracy in England – one of the most centralised countries in Europe as measured by the local control of resources and the over-dependence on Whitehall decision making.
The report comes just weeks after the long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper which includes devolution and empowering local leaders and communities as one of its 12 missions for ‘levelling up’ left-behind areas. 
The Society argue that existing approaches to devolution and local government reform have been too focussed on economic factors and efficiency, and are calling for a new approach focused on democracy and empowerment and guided by a clear set of principles and values that respect the democratic importance of local government and the vital role played by citizens themselves.
Dr Jess Garland, Director of Policy and Research, Electoral Reform Society said:
“England remains one of the most centralised nations in Europe. While the centres of power in the rest of the UK have shifted away from Westminster over the last two decades, for England these changes have been limited.
“Too often any transfer of decision making-powers has come as an afterthought – little has been done to genuinely empower local government or the communities in which people live.
“This report begins to set out how a new relationship between national and local government can be created.
“It cannot be left for Westminster to decide how local communities should see themselves and how they should be governed, but to set out how those communities can choose their own governance, how citizens can themselves reinvigorate local democracy.
“Now is the time to rebuild our local democracy but, to do that, England can no longer be an afterthought.”
Michela Palese, Research and Policy Officer, Electoral Reform Society, who authored the report said:
“Devolution is a journey. There is no single path that local areas in England can or should take to achieve it.
“As we saw during the pandemic, it is our local councils that are on the front line of so many of the issues that face our communities – yet, as we’ve found, too often our local representatives find themselves powerless in the face of Westminster’s centralising control.
“We must give areas real power and autonomy from the centre to ensure that people themselves – whether local representatives or citizens – are brought back into the process and have the opportunity to make their own decisions.
“England needs to rediscover genuine local self-government, with democracy, representation, and place at its heart – we need political leadership and commitment to deliver true democracy for England.”
- Subsidiarity: decisions should be taken at, and power and resources devolved to, the lowest possible level.
- Transparency and openness: there should be transparency around the process of devolution so that local communities are informed and engaged.
- Autonomy: local areas should have the autonomy to act in the best interests of the communities they serve.
- Accountability and democratic responsiveness: Devolution should ensure that local accountability and democratic responsiveness to citizens is enhanced.
- Democratic legitimacy: structures of local government and devolution should be recognised as democratically legitimate by the communities they serve.
- Trust: the relationship between the centre and the localities should be based on trust, with the centre having confidence in local areas to make their own decisions.
- Equality and partnership: the relationship between the centre and localities should be based on equality and collaboration.
- Diversity: a flourishing local democracy ensures that a wide range of voices and views are heard, and enables diverse groups to be represented.
- An empowered local government: local government needs to be valued as a meaningful, recognised governance structure, with real power and autonomy. Powers, funding, and capacity need to be transferred away from Whitehall and down into local communities.
- Valuing place: approaches to devolution need to be place-sensitive – the strength of local government is the link it provides to place and local leadership.
- Citizen engagement: citizen involvement should be an essential value underpinning devolution in England – solutions cannot be imposed top-down, but rather should be built up from the local level and enjoy people’s support and legitimacy.
The report also contains a number of concrete policies reform to put into action the principles and values including:
- Establishing a devolution framework: Devolution should be the default position. A new framework should be set out which clarifies the aims and purpose of devolution, centred on a presumption in favour of democracy and local self-determination.
- Reforming English local government elections: Proportional representation for English local government would help reinvigorate democracy at the local level, ending the proliferation of one-party states and single-party domination of council chambers, and opening up councils to a diversity of voices.
- Improving relations between the centre and localities: New mechanisms for both vertical (between the centre and localities) and horizontal (across local government) relations should be created to ensure local areas are represented in the national arena and are empowered to coordinate with one another – including a fairly elected second chamber in Westminster to allow for the fair and equal representation of the UK’s nations, regions and localities.
- A pathway to reform: For devolution to truly work and be implemented effectively, there needs to be a genuine commitment to let go of power at the centre – devolution should be seen as a positive end in itself. Bottom-up citizen involvement will be necessary to ensure the legitimacy of, and trust in, any new institutional set-up and democracy more broadly.