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Rebuilding local democracy: the accountability challenge in English devolution

The fostering of economic growth and productivity at a place-based level requires well-designed and well-functioning devolved institutions. This report identifies four different types of accountability and explores each of these in turn in relation to the emerging model of English devolution.

These are:

  • Top-down accountability, which is the prevailing form in the British context
  • Bottom-up accountability, which is far less developed here compared to many other states
  • Inward accountability, which operates primarily through the institutionalised relationship between the mayor and the local authority leaders
  • Outward accountability which concerns how these authorities relate to their local communities and voters. Discussing each of these in turn, we identify the limitations of inward and outward accountability in relation to the emerging model of English devolution.


Types of accountability in English devolution

We advance a number of key recommendations based upon the analysis set out in the body of this paper. These include proposals to:

  • Re-design the scrutiny function in Combined Authorities, creating directly elected scrutiny committees where there are more advanced devolution deals. Government should stipulate statutory minimum standards across the country. And there should be dedicated members on four- or five-year terms, dedicated resources to support this system, and an expanded research and public engagement function in relation to scrutiny. For Level 4 devolution deals (‘trailblazers’) and above, a directly elected scrutiny committee should be created.
  • Publish an explicit menu of governance options for MCAs and set out a democratic process for choosing and changing models of leadership. All options should include a directly elected leader and representation from local authorities, but different places will need different executive arrangements.
  • Change the mayoral voting system back to the supplementary vote model, and place the Electoral Commission in charge of overseeing any future changes. As we argue, the recent move towards first-past-the-post is a step backwards in terms of local accountability.
  • Revitalise local media as an anchor for public accountability and democratic life by taking forward and building on the recommendations of numerous reports advocating adequate, targeted and long-term funding mechanisms to facilitate and support the inevitable transformation of the sector, while also addressing existing geographical inequalities in local media access and quality.

Improving accountability as the English devolution model is developing is vital if we want to tackle some of the causes of the decline of local democracy and for UK government to deliver on the missions of improving economic growth, productivity and living standards across England. For policymakers – both locally and nationally – getting accountability right is a multi-faceted and complex challenge. Bringing together separate debates about citizen engagement, local media, business and employer leadership, accountability to Westminster, and mechanisms for scrutiny under the heading of ‘improving accountability,’ should ensure more joined up and systemic thinking in this area.

Authors: Jack Newman (University of Bristol), Sam Warner (The University of Manchester), Michael Kenny (University of Cambridge), Andy Westwood (The University of Manchester)


  • Institutions & Governance




J. Newman, S. Warner, M. Kenny, A. Westwood (2024) Rebuilding local democracy: the accountability challenge in English devolution. Productivity Insights Paper No. 028, The Productivity Institute.