Prominent academics, Andy Westwood, Professor of Government Practice at The University of Manchester, and Adrian Pabst, Deputy Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, have issued a warning about the detrimental effects of frequent alterations to national and local institutions, policies, and ministers on productivity and the widening of regional disparities.

In their collaborative article, Westwood and Pabst contend that “the UK’s economic troubles are tied to a high degree of political instability and policy upheaval, which has led to diminished business confidence.”

They emphasise that this instability has been especially pronounced since the 2016 EU Referendum, with five Prime Ministers and seven Chancellors of the Exchequer in office since the vote – including three Prime Ministers and four Chancellors in 2022 alone.

But they add: “It’s not only ministerial churn that characterises this current period in government” with changes to “policies and key economic institutions” also playing their part, together with “a series of ever-changing growth strategies and the constant reconfiguration of departments associated with delivering them.”

Professors Westwood and Pabst contend that the establishment of “institutions at the national, local and sectoral levels” which are then “abolished at will” has underpinned the uncertainty. This includes Local Enterprise Partnerships which were “established in 2010, reviewed repeatedly and then abolished in 2023.”

The academics remind readers that the previous Labour Government had also been cautious in its approach to both devolution and the structure of national and local institutions. This involved the establishment of the extensive Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, later replaced by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Additionally, Regional Assemblies were introduced, only to be later supplanted by Leaders’ Boards and subsequently Local and Multi Area Agreements.

Professors Westwood and Pabst conclude that “this long-term attitude to our institutions comes at a considerable cost.”

They write: “Longstanding policy and organisational churn contribute to spatial inequality and to poor productivity by exacerbating uncertainty when policymaking is supposed to absorb shocks and provide some more stability. It is every bit as damaging as abandoning major infrastructure projects such as HS2 or HS3 or U-turns on net zero targets and many other industrial strategies.”

And they call on ministers – current and future – to “resist doing such damage and instead look to build long-term capacity and effectiveness into both national and local institutions.”

Professors Westwood and Pabst add: “They should also learn to work with, and trust, institutions including city-region mayors – even if not from the same political parties and even narrower networks and like-minded cliques. This must be the politics – and economics – of long-term stability, increased capacity and sufficient resources that are required if we are to improve and grow the economy throughout the country.”

The article, ‘Control. Alt. Delete: Governments and their problem with institutions’ by Andy Westwood and Adrian Pabst, can be accessed on The University of Manchester website.

Professor Westwood will participate in a panel discussion at the Labour Party conference on Tuesday 10 October, alongside the Mayor of Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram, and Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner, Kim McGuinness. The topic of discussion will be ‘How can a Labour government build strong institutions to reduce regional inequalities?’

For complete details, visit the Policy@Manchester website.