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People, Place and Policy (2016): 10/3, pp. 253-256. DOI: 10.3351/ppp.0010.0003.0006
© 2016 The Author People, Place and Policy (2016): 10/3, pp. 253-256
Journal Compilation © 2016 PPP
Book Review
Devolution and Localism in England
David M. Smith and Enid Wistrich
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2014, 134 pages, £95 (hb)
ISBN: 978 14 7243 079 3
Kevin Muldoon-Smith* and Paul Greenhalgh
Northumbria University
In the autumn of 2015 the first Chancellor of a Conservative Government to address a
Conservative Party Conference in 18 years, George Osborne, famously, or notoriously,
proclaimed that England was in the midst of a devolution revolution. The devolution
revolution is now the cornerstone of the government's attempts to re-balance the
economy. Growth and City Deals (agreed between Whitehall and local levels of
Government), Enterprise Zones, Neighbourhood Planning areas and the government's
commitment to fiscal decentralisation have signalled potentially the biggest
decentralisation of power, responsibility and finance in living memory. Illustrating the
ambiguity in these new arrangements, there is some debate in relation to the financial
potency of these new provisions, compared with the previous era of Regional
Development Agencies (RDAs). While the allocation of direct funding under devolution
deals is certainly dwarfed by the Single Pot under the repealed RDAs, this is more than
made up for with the £26 billion Business Rate receipts decentralised to local
authorities under the Business Rate Retention Scheme. However, the equalisation of
these receipts between local authorities is less straightforward in the lead up to the full
roll-out of the scheme in 2020 where an area-based division between winners and
losers is likely.
These changes have taken place against the backdrop of austerity and an
unprecedented reduction in centrally allocated local government funding (the centrally
administered Revenue Support Grant will be phased out by 2020). In response to this
situation, cities up and down the country have been pitching, negotiating and agreeing
devolution deals that will set out the road map for their own futures. Increasingly,
towns, cities and counties are expected to stand on their own two feet and run and
fund their own public services and local economic development strategies.
Immediately, this signals divergence between the rhetoric of devolution and
localism and the reality of its administrative delivery on the ground. One of the main
contradictions running throughout the devolution and localism debate is the emphasis
placed on neighbouring local authorities (and neighbourhoods) working together
(amidst the fuzzy boundaries of scalar devolution), not least as a means for trying to
make meagre resources go further. Yet, this is seen in contrast to the imperative for
local authorities to compete with one another for limited financial resources, such as
local business rates, in order to pay for the enhanced responsibilities implicit in
devolution and localism.
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© 2016 The Author People, Place and Policy (2016): 10/3, pp. 253-256
Journal Compilation © 2016 PPP
This dynamic and contested situation, compounded by the recent independence
referendum in Scotland in the popular imagination, and the less well known (but no
less influential) cross-party Smith Commission on further devolution powers to Scotland
makes any attempt to survey the landscape of devolution and localism in England
fraught with the dangers of passing time and events. The fear is that any such effort is
rendered irrelevant before it is published. It is tempting to aim this accusation at
Devolution and Localism in England by David M. Smith and Enid Wistrich which ends
its empirical investigation during the first flowerings of the sub-regional Local
Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) in the early part of the decade. However, to do so would
be a disservice to a well-reasoned and argued book that lays a conceptual and
historical foundation for the discussion of devolution and localism in England.
Early on (pages 2-5) the authors define devolution, equating it with decentralisation
and contrasting it with federalism, where ultimate power is still held by Westminster
under the English brand of devolution - this is welcomed. Similarly, the authors devote
an entire chapter (Chapter 6) to the evolution and pragmatic reality of localism.
However, despite conceding on page 58 that there is considerable ambiguity in the
meaning and practice of localism in England, the book would have benefited from an
earlier conceptual treatment of localism (and its synergy - or lack thereof - with
devolution). Ideally this would have taken place in the first chapter, in order to provide
a conceptual framework for the rest of the book. This would have also provided an
opportunity for the authors to deal with some of the ambiguities and broad creative
chaos currently held in English devolution and localism, with both terms regularly used
interchangeably but holding different meanings and scales of relevance - for instance,
between that strand of devolution that emphasises the increasing powers of
communities, such as Neighbourhood Development Plans, and the different strand that
emphasises devolution at the city-region scale.
However, an alternative perspective would be that the book was published at just
the right point and provides a staging post in time when the previous model of
centralised government provision (one of the most centralised in the world) and the
New Labour emphasis on regionalism began to break down in favour of an embryonic
stage of devolution and localism. Indeed, in a relatively short period of time the
traditions of central and local government have been torn-up in favour of a plethora of
new policy instruments ranging from Neighbourhood Planning, a new wave of
Enterprise Zones and the previously mentioned City, Growth and Devolution Deals.
However, further illustrating the continuing subservience to Westminster and
ambiguous nature of devolution and localism, in contrast to federal forms of
government (characterised by a separation of power from the state), central
government continues to specify the composition and funding conditions for many of
these deal-based instruments. Exacerbating this issue, there has been very little
emphasis given to the implications for local service delivery or the views of those
stakeholders in the public, private and third sectors tasked with managing the fallout of
these sudden changes.
It is therefore timely that Smith and Wistrich chose to engage regional elites to
understand the progress of devolution in England, particularly how successive
governments have tried to engage English people in sub-national democratic processes
while dealing with the realities of governance. The authors trace the historical
development of decentralisation through regional policies up to and including the
general election in 2010 (touching on the watershed 2007 Sub National Review and
2008 White Paper - Communities in Control - which heralded the advent of New
Localism) and the subsequent radical shift away from regionalism to localism since
p. 255. Book Review - Devolution and Localism in England
© 2016 The Author People, Place and Policy (2016): 10/3, pp. 253-256
Journal Compilation © 2016 PPP
In a relatively short book it is laudable that the authors provide such a careful
grounding in some of the basic terminology of devolution and localism. More
importantly, they begin to explain the myriad and overlapping institutional
arrangements that have adapted and changed in meaning as new directions in
devolution and localism have been considered over time. The main empirical sections
of the book can be split into two parts, the end of the New Labour Government project
and the first flowerings of the Coalition Government project in the aftermath of the
2010 general election. Firstly, Smith and Wistrich consider decentralisation and
governance in England and the UK before questioning whether there is a role for
English Regional Governance. They then consider English region and sub-regional
institutions within issues of regional and sub-regional identity and engagement in
Chapter 3. They argue that in order to make policy relevant to local concerns, it must
be coherent with what 'local' means to local people. Their main finding, from interviews,
is that there is an inverse relationship between the existence of local identity (more
likely at the neighbourhood, town and city scale) and the practical ability to deliver
economic and strategic planning (even the sub-region was seen as too small). This
reflected an earlier finding in Chapter 2 that indicated the necessity of a regional
institutional set-up (and local authorities working together) for planning, transport and
The second part begins with an appraisal of Coalition Government policy and the
death of the regions. The authors then consider the centrality of cities since 2010
under the Coalition Government, the concept of the city region and the subsequent
focus on economic growth and the devolution of powers. However, the authors do not
delve too far into the pragmatic reality of this situation (perhaps because of its
emerging focus). For instance, while cities and their hinterlands may have been the key
policy discourse, the reality was that Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) were a patch-
work quilt of regions, counties and ad hoc and incoherent amalgams - rather than a
reflection of real economic geographies (it can be argued that the passage of time has
already seen LEPs marginalised by combined authorities and similar working
The final section provides a critical reflection of localism and the pragmatics of good
governance in England. It is in this section that Smith and Wistrich provide a useful
discussion of the contradictions inherent in these new localist approaches, highlighting
in particular the inability to achieve consistent levels of economic development and
security in finance to support these untried arrangements. This suggests some
underlying tensions in the contemporary devolution and localism agenda; is it fair to
devolve power (and blame) to locations that cannot wield it? The authors conclude
their book by arguing that devolution in England, as yet, appears to lack any consistent
framework within which it is to be applied. This final point is difficult to refute, except to
follow this up by arguing that this is perhaps the new reality of entrepreneurial local
government and public service provision in England.
An easy criticism of the book would be to challenge it for lacking a robust grounding
in academic literature and not picking out some of the central implications within the
empirical research. However, when the book is viewed in totality this omission is a key
strength (notwithstanding the need for a greater conceptual discussion of devolution
and localism in Chapter 1) because it replaces academic debate with the practitioner's
viewpoint. So often ignored, this approach provides a coalface account of what
devolution and localism means to those on the ground and the opportunities and
challenges faced by regional and local political, administrative, business and voluntary
sector actors and stakeholders. A particular strength of the book is the open voice
given to local government officers and public and third sector workers who are regularly
p. 256. Book Review - Devolution and Localism in England
© 2016 The Author People, Place and Policy (2016): 10/3, pp. 253-256
Journal Compilation © 2016 PPP
maligned as inefficient, but rarely get the opportunity to put their own views forward in
Although, Smith and Wistrich provide a justification for not revealing the case study
locations, maintaining that confidentiality leads to greater candour and forthright
opinion, it is impossible, and therefore a distraction, not to spend a great deal of time
trying to second guess which locations are under investigation. A similar
methodological outcome could have been achieved by maintaining job title
confidentiality, but disclosing which locations were under investigation. At the opposite
end of the methodological spectrum, after taking so much care to maintain
confidentiality in relation to the location of research there is little discussion in relation
to selection of the elite stakeholders and the connotations and ambiguities in the term
'elite.' This deficit could be improved by referencing some of the research by Aberbach
and Rachman (2002), Harvey (2011) and McGuinness et al. (2015) in relation to
conducting and analysing elite research interviews.
Overall, Devolution and Localism in England provides an initial grounding for
anyone researching the progress of devolution of governance in England.
Encouragingly, due to the time frame of analysis, the book also recalls an era when
devolution was a central pillar of Labour Party discourse, sadly lacking in the current
period. However, due to the vigorous rate of change in the research area the book is
already in need of a second edition. It is certainly a victim of its subject matter, as the
current Conservative Government continues to re-draw the boundaries of the
decentralisation and devolution debate in England. Yet, this also presents an
opportunity for the authors and the relevant academic community as it demonstrates
the continued salience and volatility of the subject area, the need for critical oversight
and the requirement for alternative perspectives to the current Conservative hegemony
in order to counterbalance a one-sided debate. Perhaps a second edition could reflect
on the period following the empirical research in order to probe some of the
contradictions involved in devolution and localism. For instance, it would be interesting
to reflect on the rhetorical demand for local authorities to work together at the sub-
regional scale (and its necessity if planning, transport, infrastructure and economic
development is to be managed strategically), and the entrepreneurial reality of local
authorities having to potentially compete with one another for financial resources, for
instance business rates, at the same scale.
*Correspondence address: Kevin Muldoon-Smith, Northumbria University, City Campus,
2 Ellison Place, Newcastle upon-Tyne, NE1 8ST. Email: kevin.muldoon-
Aberbach, J. and Rockman, B. (2002) Conducting and coding elite interviews. Political
Science, 35, 4, 673-676.
Harvey, W. (2011) Strategies for conducting elite interviews. Qualitative Research, 11,
4, 431-441.
McGuinness, D., Greenhalgh, P. and Pugalis, L. (2015) Is the grass always greener?
The Geographical Journal, 181, 1, 26-37.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
This paper addresses some strategies for conducting elite interviews. It draws upon material from a significant number of interviews that the author has conducted with this group in a variety of economic sectors and countries, as well as from the social sciences literature on elites. The aim of the paper is to provide insights into the particularities of interviewing elites for those new to researching this group. In particular, it focuses on gaining trust and gauging the tone of the interview, how to present oneself during the interview, asking open and closed questions, the appropriate length of an interview, whether to record the conversation, coping with difficult scenarios, asking awkward questions, managing respondents who do not answer the question, keeping respondents interested in the interview and finally gaining feedback from respondents.
In real estate the maxim for picking a piece of property is “location, location, location.” In elite interviewing, as in social science generally, the maxim for the best way to design and conduct a study is “purpose, purpose, purpose.” It's elementary that the primary question one must ask before designing a study is, “What do I want to learn?” Appropriate methods flow from the answer. Interviewing is often important if one needs to know what a set of people think, or how they interpret an event or series of events, or what they have done or are planning to do. (Interviews are not always necessary. Written records, for example, may be more than adequate.) In a case study, respondents are selected on the basis of what they might know to help the investigator fill in pieces of a puzzle or confirm the proper alignment of pieces already in place. If one aims to make inferences about a larger population, then one must draw a systematic sample. For some kinds of information, highly structured interviews using mainly or exclusively close-ended questions may be an excellent way to proceed. If one needs to probe for information and to give respondents maximum flexibility in structuring their responses, then open-ended questions are the way to go.