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England is the poor relation of the UK when it comes to democracy. Despite a decade that has had a raft of elected mayors, metro mayors, and police and crime commissioners created, large areas of the country still have no real political agency to truly shape their future.

Meanwhile, people across large swathes of England have watched as their counterparts in Scotland and Wales, London too, have been offered a choice over how they wish to be governed and then seen Westminster devolve meaningful powers, as well as billions in budget responsibilities, to regional and national assemblies.

This is not a sustainable situation as it has created a yawning inequality at the heart of Britain’s constitutional settlement.

This inequality is not just an esoteric concern for academics. It is a fundamental question for one of the most pressing issues of British politics: levelling up. Devolution is central to that debate as it asks: how can communities that have been left behind rebuild themselves?

The 2019 election was a cri de coeur from dozens of communities who felt neglected and let down by the centralised Westminster system. The causes of decline are complex and longstanding, from the Beeching rail cuts of the 1960s severing transport arteries to small towns, to the withering of legacy industries resulting in thousands of lost jobs that have never been replaced.

An exacerbating factor in this story of decline has been the lack of agency that the affected areas have had to better their situation.

A recent report by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) on the state of English devolution, entitled Democracy Made in England, highlighted how the areas outside of London have been held back by an underpowered system of local government that was built for the nineteenth century rather than the twenty-first.

The theme of this system for the last two centuries has been that ‘Westminster knows best,’ with local authorities treated as little more than the delivery arm for central government policies. A survey for the report of almost 800 local councillors found that over two-thirds (68%) feel they do not have sufficient powers to represent the needs of their local community.

Yet, while the consensus is that parts of England need to be urgently levelled up, the question is now how this Herculean task can be achieved. Levelling up cannot simply be writing a cheque. Communities know best and know what they need in order to rejuvenate their areas – they need powers to act for themselves. What is required to level-up areas in Yorkshire will be very different to parts of Devon.

This is a fundamentally conservative principle: decisions are best made by those most affected by them, rather than remote centres of power.

Over the last decade, the Coalition and then successive Conservative Governments have recognised this and created a host of elected mayors and devolved bodies in England. However, this has resulted in an uneven patchwork of devolved powers, with many areas of England still having no real means of regional development bar a distant central government or small local authorities.

The Johnson Government had already committed to going much further on devolution. In 2019, Boris Johnson was explicit in the need for radical devolution in England, pledging “to give greater powers to council leaders and to communities.”

The Levelling up white paper reaffirmed this commitment, stating its intent to “extend, deepen and simplify devolution across England.” These are steps in the right direction, but to succeed, there needs to be a fundamental refit so local authorities, not Whitehall, steer levelling up.

The ERS’ Democracy Made in England report lays out some of the fundamental principles that are required to shape English devolution and ensure English communities have the same autonomy as other parts of the UK.

The first is subsidiarity: decisions should be made at, as well as power and resources devolved to, the lowest level of local government possible. The closer to the communities these decisions are made, the better they will be.

Next, local representatives need to be given genuine autonomy to act in the best interests for their residents. Central government will always set up the framework and the overall plan for levelling up, but local councillors will know where a new bus route can regenerate a town’s economy or where a new school is most badly needed.

Devolution also needs to be grounded in communities’ sense of place. It needs to reflect and represent the areas that people identify with. One reason voters rejected New Labour’s plans for a North East England Regional Assembly in the early 2000s is that very few people see themselves as North East Englanders.

Lastly, devolution needs to be done in an accountable and transparent way. That means deals should not be done in backrooms over new powers and voters need to be asked about what forms of devolution would serve them best.

In a similar vein, local authorities themselves need to be made more accountable. The ERS argues that a key way to do this would be through introducing proportional representation in local elections to avoid the stagnant one-party states that First Past the Post produces. For instance, last May’s local elections saw results such as Camden, where Labour took 85% of the seats with just 51% of the vote. First Past the Post has also led to absurd situations such as in Newcastle where no Conservative councillors have been elected for thirty years.

Results like these create town halls that do not fully represent the range of views in the local community, and also ones where decisions are not properly scrutinised. However, a proportional system such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) used in Scotland’s local elections would create more competitive, responsive, and representative town halls.

Devolution, as a broad policy, is built on the conservative principle that people know what is best for their own communities. Yet, centuries of over-centralisation has contributed to the decline of large areas of England by enfeebling local democracy. Levelling up needs to right this historic wrong with a radical devolution settlement that makes local areas masters of their own destiny again. For levelling up to work, it cannot be top down.

Darren Hughes is the Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine State shifting?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Jonny Gios]