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Devolution and Decentralisation: A student view from York

October 30, 2014
Richard Crawshaw is a second year Social and Political Sciences student at the University of York and Vice Chair of York Student Think Tank. He says:
“We recently held of policy lab looking at what was next for the rest of the UK following the Scottish Referendum. The policy lab had some interesting conclusions, which I’ve written up into a blog post about the discussion and some thoughts on devolution from our Think Tank.”
We are delighted to reproduce the findings below.

Devolution and Decentralisation: A student view from York

Last Thursday amidst the hustle and bustle of the first week of teaching at the University of York, I presented a policy lab to the York Student Think Tank entitled The Scottish referendum: Where do we go from here? Despite being held on a dreary October evening, there was an impressive turnout which included a wide range of students from postgraduates to fresh faced first years, from locals to southerners and even international students. This crowd, which took me by surprise, suggests an increasing and wide level of interest in the topic, an interest not limited to the northern regions of the UK.

The York Student Think Tank use the concept of a policy lab. A policy lab is an open event which usually consisting of a 10-15 minute introductory presentation on the subject at hand which then breaks off into groups to discuss and debate the key questions and issues. We favour this format for our weekly events as it allows for the inclusion of a wide range of people, including not only people who are already interested and knowledgeable on a subject, but also those who would like to know more. This basic format is all about making our policy process as inclusive as possible.

As the event went on and discussion began, the groups covered a wide range of issues. Is the UK over centralised? Is devolution and decentralisation inevitable? Is devolution a slippery slope to separation? Can we heal the north south economic divide without some form of devolution or decentralisation? One proposal suggested extending cultural investment in the North, investing in northern theatre and arts in order to stimulate growth throughout those sectors. The general mood erred away from the breakup of the union and towards a breakdown of the concentration of power in Westminster. Many suggestions revolved around giving regions control over their own budgets, un-interfered by central government, to spend how they saw fit on what their regions needed most.

Not everyone supported more decentralisation, pointing out that breaking down layers of government could become costly, complex and a maze of bureaucracy and red tape. A warning perhaps that any move to introduce a new layer of government must be carefully considered, not a rushed proposal of half thought out ideas, it must not simply draw power up to the regions but simultaneously draw power down from central government. Another danger highlighted was the idea that devolution and decentralisation would not appease regional movements, which would then begin to move towards separation. That said, if we look towards our European neighbours, we see countries like Germany with strong regional governments are not facing calls for separation.

Rarely is a consensus on a solution to any issue is reached in a concise manner, but that’s not exactly the point of a policy lab. The point is rather to allow students to realise that they can, if they choose have a say in the policy making process and we aim to inspire students to have their say. I believe the policy lab as a concept is something we need more of in the policy process, open to all, accessible policy making from the bottom up. In terms of the great decentralisation and devolution debate, involving ordinary citizens is needed even more. A constitutional convention should be convened open to all and if it takes 10 years, it takes 10 years. What is most important is to make sure any future settlement on devolution is owned by the people and not a quick fix for politicians.

Our policy lab ended typically without any grand consensus on the solutions to the issues we face today, which was much to be expected. However one stark discovery was made. After extended discussion we realised that no one in the room believed that the status quo was sustainable. We broadly agreed that at some point something would have to change. For me this highlights the problems of the state we are in, people are beginning to lose faith in the current structure of our political system and are uncertain and divided on the solution, but none the less people are searching for alternatives. This should serve as a warning to our political class.

The devolution question can only be solved by the people in the regions, not by politicians or political parties, who many feel have already mistreated and neglected large sections of the country. The growing rift between ordinary people and the political establishment can only be healed by politicians seceding power, giving citizens a stake in their communities handing control over budgets and key sectors to the regions. The failure to respond to the growing calls for decentralisation could set some of the most neglected regions on the path to separation. As regional political parties strengthen their movements and more evidence emerges of the a reinforcement of regional identities, the major parties risk losing entire regions of the country to regional parties in the long run.

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