Can national policy blockages accelerate the development of polycentric governance? Evidence from recent developments in UK climate policy

Many factors can conspire to limit the scope for policy development at the national scale. In this paper, we consider whether blockages in national policy processes – resulting for example from austerity or ‘small state’ political philosophies – might accelerate the development of more polycentric governance arrangements. Recognising that this issue is of widespread relevance, we address this question by exploring the causes of the UK’s recent retrenchment in the area of climate change policy, and the ways in which policymakers and other stakeholders have responded. We start by using the Policy Dismantling Framework to identify key structure-agency dynamics within government and thus identify the scope and rationales for pursuing innovations through alternative forms of governance. We then examine the potential for advances in policy and governance via 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 the constraining influence of various structural factors, we find that a wide climate policy network can create opportunities for overcoming central government blockages by engaging in polycentric governance arrangements. 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 or retrenchment of the state during austere times.