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22 August 2014

Public up for further decentralisation of powers but Westminster still blamed for any service shortfall.

New research by PwC reveals that almost half of UK citizens believe Westminster and UK ministers should have less power over local services, with greater devolution given to local government and regional bodies.

The PwC report, Who’s accountable now? looked back at a decade of devolution and decentralisation across the UK and concluded that the public generally still holds the Westminster government accountable for deteriorating service delivery, even where accountability for services like education, health and policing have been decentralised or devolved to regional or local bodies.

However, where devolution is clearly visible - such as in London’s Mayor, Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales and the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - there is a greater willingness to accept that responsibility for local performance can be laid at the door of locally-accountable bodies.

To measure public perceptions of where accountability for public services should lie, PwC commissioned YouGov to survey 0ver 2,000 people, across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Respondents were asked to consider who they would hold accountable if there was deterioration in public service performance and delivery in the areas of health, education, policing, and transport, housing and waste collection services - in their local area; in their wider region; and across the UK.

The survey found that the public’s perception of local accountability depends on decentralisation policies being well communicated, clearly enacted, highly visible and where real powers are transferred to highly accountable local bodies.

The survey also identified different levels of accountability for outcomes like economic performance.  Across the UK, at a purely local level, respondents said they would attribute any improvement in the economy primarily to local businesses (38%) and local people (25%), whereas at a regional and UK level, 33% and 38%, respectively, would credit economic improvement to the UK government .

By way of contrast, people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland tended to differentiate between regional and local performance - where local Assemblies are held more accountable - and national performance, where, the UK government in Westminster is held accountable.

In Northern Ireland, respondents said that they would attribute any improvement in the region’s economy primarily to local businesses (41%),followed by local people (20%), and the Northern Ireland Assembly (22%); only 4% of respondents would credit Westminster with an improving Northern Ireland economy.

Similarly in Scotland, any improvement in the regional economy would be attributed primarily to local businesses (23%), to local people (28%), and the Scottish Assembly (24%); only 13% of respondents in Scotland would credit Westminster with an improving Scottish economy

The report concludes that when lines of accountability are unclear, where the division of power is murky and the public does not know who is in charge; citizens revert to holding the government in Westminster responsible for the performance of public services at national and local level.

Only where locally accountable services are highly visible and where there is a high degree of transparency and accountability, such as the Mayor of London’ accountability for transport does perceived accountability shift from central government to local bodies.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Esmond Birnie, PwC chief economist in Northern Ireland said:

“Perceptions of accountability change if decentralisation is well communicated, clearly enacted and if real powers are transferred to highly accountable bodies.

“The devolved assemblies and more recently, Police and Crime Commissioners stand out as examples.

“The survey results for the devolved regions do indicate that where there is transparency and visible accountability, people will hold decentralised and devolved bodies accountable for performance.

 “The results of this survey say less about the public appetite for a blame game and more about our need to raise the profile of who’s responsible and accountable, and for what.” 

Overall, the research suggests that while the public will not oppose further decentralisation – with 43% of English respondents believing English councils should have more powers -  the jury is still out on a number of elements of the decentralisation debate, including:

  • The case for directly elected mayors. While Londoners remain the most confident with only 23% opposed to an elected mayor, Wales and Northern Ireland demonstrate the strongest support for elected mayors, but even there only 39% of people in each region are in favour.
  • Worries about post code lotteries persist. 80% of respondents agree that everyone should be able to access the same public services, no matter where they live, with 75% agreeing that councils should be free to prioritise as long as they meet central government mandated national standards.

Over half (53%) the public in the survey believe public services would be delivered more effectively if they are free from political pressures; that rose to 62% in Northern Ireland – the highest percentage of any of UK regions.

Download Who'sAccountable_Final_200814

Contact details

Email: Esmond Birnie

Tel: +44 (0)28 9041 5808

Email: John Compton

Tel: +44 (0)28 9041 5663