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Critical perspectives on devolved governance

05 May 2015

Joseph Kilroy

The city and regional devolution agenda has received a lot of attention over the past couple of years, alongside important policy announcements - witness George Osborne’s recent 'Devo Manc' deal and the ubiquity of devolution in all of the major parties’ manifestos. But how much do we really know about the benefits of devolving power and resources, how can these benefits be realised, and what does the international evidence tell us?

During our centenary year we produced a huge volume of policy and research analysis which addressed the question of devolution and its impacts. The Planning Horizons series in particular focused on planning’s contribution to long-term societal issues, and emphasised the importance of governance and place-based thinking. These documents have helped to embed the RTPI in the academic and policy communities, and 2015 will see the policy and research team using the work done as a basis for further external engagement. This outward facing agenda was kicked-off this week at UCL when the RTPI hosted a symposium on governance. The event involved a range of academics and policy experts who gave their perspective on devolved models of governance and took a critical perspective on devolution.

[H]ow much do we really know about the benefits of devolving power and resources, how can these benefits be realised, and what does the international evidence tell us?

In his opening remarks as chair, Dr Mike Harris said: "Given our recent output on these topics, the RTPI welcomes the opportunity to facilitate further debates on governance, leadership, and planning’s role in responding to the major challenges we face in the twenty-first century."

The symposium was opened by Professor Jacob Torfing of Roskilde University who discussed collaborative innovation in the public sector. He noted the rising pressure on the public sector at a time when there is a lack of resource, and argued that collaborative innovation has therefore become a key aspiration of public organisations in many western countries.

Professor Patsy Healey presented on 'Planning, Place Governance and the Challenges of Devolution'. She argued that innovation in planning in the UK is often repressed by 'institutional scaffolding', and that planners by their nature know now about how to think collaboratively and embrace a range of perspectives. Citing the Planning Horizons research projects, Healey maintained that the ‘planning project’ can deliver place-based governance as an antidote to the overly centralised system of governance we currently operate in (especially in England).

Professor Robin Hambleton discussed place-based leadership and social innovation. Referring to their key role in pushing environmental governance forward, Hambleton argued that cities are currently proving to be the most innovative players in global governance.

Professor John Tomaney gave a critical review of decentralisation, pointing out that there is a startling array of definitions of decentralisation which throw up a set of measurement problems. Tomaney concluded that these definitional and measurement issues make presenting a general picture of decentralisation somewhat difficult, something that is not acknowledged in contemporary political debates.

After a morning of academic contributors, the policy panel considered what the presentations mean for policy makers.

Miguel Coelho (Institute for Government) argued that it is unhelpful to think about devolution in the abstract and not in relation to specific policies, and asked for concrete evidence that devolution can benefit the population. Andrew Carter (Centre for Cities) pointed out that current debates on devolution in academia don’t give sufficient acknowledgment to the highly politicised environment in which we operate, while Phillip Blond agreed with his other panel members and called for more partnerships between academia and policy.

Whatever the outcome of this week’s election, the RTPI's policy and research function will continue to build on the centenary year’s research efforts. This formative work has helped to ingratiate the team into the wider research and policy community, as evinced by the success of this week’s symposium.

Following on from the symposium RTPI will be producing a pamphlet which will contain an article from each of the speakers as well as contributions from individuals with an interest in the area.

Podcasts of interviews with the four academic speakers can be found here.

Read the RTPI Planning Horizons paper on governance here.

Joe Kilroy is Policy Officer at the RTPI and author of Making Better Decisions for Places