Can national policy blockages accelerate the development of polycentric governance? Evidence from climate change policy in the United Kingdom

Many factors can conspire to limit the scope for policy development at the national level. In this paper, we consider whether blockages in national policy processes − resulting for example from austerity or small state political philosophies − might be overcome by the development of more polycentric governance arrangements. Drawing on evidence from three stakeholder workshops and fifteen interviews, we address this question by exploring the United Kingdom’s recent retrenchment in the area of climate change policy, and the ways in which its policy community have responded. We identify two broad strategies based on polycentric principles: ‘working with gatekeepers’ to unlock political capital and ‘collaborate to innovate’ to develop policy outputs. We then empirically examine the advantages that these actions bring, analysing coordination across overlapping sites of authority, such as those associated with international regimes, devolved administrations and civic and private initiatives that operate in conjunction with, and sometimes independently of, the state. Despite constraining political and economic factors, which are by no means unique to the UK, we find that a polycentric climate policy network can create opportunities for overcoming central government blockages. However, we also argue that the ambiguous role of the state in empowering but also in constraining such a network will determine whether a polycentric approach to climate policy and governance is genuinely additional and innovative, or whether it is merely a temporary ‘sticking plaster’ for the retreat of the state and policy retrenchment during austere times.

Global Environmental Change, 45, pp.174-182, June 2017