Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Devolution of Power: Post-Referendum Negotiation - Prof Janice Morphet, UCL

The constitutional crisis and chaos that has followed the ‘no’ vote has focussed primarily on England rather than the additional powers that will be given to Scotland. Is this just a distraction to encourage speculation and relief when a solution is found or is it rooted in a more fundamental need for change? Will this result in more practical changes being offered to all the nations of the UK on domestic policy matters such as local economic regeneration which have already started to devolve through Citydeals in England and Scotland?

The first issue to consider is the continued trend towards devolution and devolved decision making. Although devolution was an event in 1999, it has always been a process with further powers being added to those devolved in Scotland, Wales and London whilst Northern Ireland was included in the devolved settlement for the UK nations through the St Andrews Agreement in 2006. 

However, the two key drivers for the introduction of this devolved settlement have rarely been discussed. The first is the increasing implementation of the principles of subsidiarity through successive agreements by the UK within the EU – the Single European Act 1986, Maastricht Treaty for the EU in 1992 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2007. Further, the UK has had a strong leadership role in the development and delivery of all three. The Lisbon Treaty also introduced the additional principle of territorial cohesion to those of social and economic cohesion which form the basis for EU policy and action. Perhaps it also went unnoticed that territorialisation in France means practical devolution from the state to the local – another issue of the slippery meanings caught in transposition - between the use of practical French and formal English in Brussels

The second driver for localism policy has come from the OECD and the new economic geography introduced by Krugman in 1991 and subsequently developed by him and others. In this theory, producing and consuming within functional economic areas (FEAs) is as important as external trade for any nation. In their promotion of this policy, the OECD has shown, through research, that where there is a common administrative and FEA boundary, then the economic benefits increase, particularly when there is more local decision making.

It is a major project to consider re-bounding all the sub-state areas of the OECD but this is what is happening now…but this new economic geography can bring other problems of separation, competition and fragmentation. In response, for example, the EU is promoting multi level governance, a policy that is a matrix form of shared and joint governance responsibility that promotes cooperation and aligned decision-making through the scales of the state. If Scotland had voted ‘yes’ then the EU institutional format of European Groupings of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC) could have been used as they provide a legal and binding framework for working across boundaries and between scales.

Whilst this might give some of the provenance of devolution policy and the state’s commitments to implement it, progress in the UK has been slow in comparison with some other EU member states. Also it is also worthwhile to consider what powers have been devolved since 1999. As I have argued elsewhere, the practical effect of devolution has been to devolve decision making on the implementation of those policy areas that the UK has already pooled within the EU. Whilst being able to attend EU policy discussions and Council meetings, members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies have no separate role to play in decision making and are bound by the pre-agreed UK negotiating position to which they contribute and influence but cannot veto. If there are to be changes here, then the federal system used in Germany offers a different model that could be considered.

So in all practical ways, the choice of domestic implementation of EU policies suggests some opportunities for differentiation and cultural tailoring. However even here there is some evidence of external divergence but practical convergence. Economic regeneration and substate cohesion provide a good example of how this is working in practice. The EU operates in multi-annual programmes which are increasingly converging to the same timeframe based on the term of office of the Commissioners. Hence the current programme period runs from 2014-2020. Whilst much of the effort of the substate governments in this period will be on the implementation of the last Commission’s programme, the new Commission, starting work in 2015 will be focussing on the period 2021-2027 and developing this new programme.

In practice this means that the EU Regulations for economic, social and territorial cohesion and transport, agreed in December 2013 will shape the policies and programmes for all nations in the UK. Here we begin to see the similarities emerge – city regions, new strategic economic areas, changes in administrative boundaries leading to combined authorities in England and Scotland and local government review in Wales and Northern Ireland, the development of integrated transport planning at sub-state level to deliver the EU sustainable urban mobility programmes (SUMPS) and the new focus on self sustaining and renewable energy sources which are a key EU focus post the Ukrainian crisis.

If Scotland had voted ‘yes’ in the referendum, would there have been any difference in this policy area? In the short term, the answer is probably no or not much as the Partnership Agreement had already been submitted for the UK. Some cosmetic changes could be made but it is more likely that it would have been maintained as a part of any membership negotiations for Scotland. Further any changes would still be within the same framework provided by the Regulations that are commonly applied across all member states. However, where a ‘yes’ vote may have made a difference is in the negotiation on the policies post-2021 where Scotland would have had its own voice and the ability to make new negotiating alliances that are always needed within the EU. Scotland could have had both an EU-wide and domestic influence on the outcome of these discussions. If the proposals for more devolution in the UK that emerge in the coming months are to mean anything, then this might be one of the tests that they face…

Prof Janice Morphet - Visiting Professor 
The Bartlett School of Planning, University College London 

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