John Shipley writes: A Federal England – what should it mean?

Late last year I was asked by the Federal Policy Committee to chair a working group on regional powers in England within a Federal UK. The group was charged with developing policy on powers for the level between local government and the Federal government, taking into account the broader vision set out in conference motion “The Creation of a Federal United Kingdom” (passed at Autumn Conference in 2020). The group was asked to build on existing policy as set out in policy paper 117 Power to the People (2014) and policy paper 130 Power for People and Communities (2018) and consider models from other Federal States such as the Federal Republic of Germany.

A modernised Federal United Kingdom has long been a key priority for Liberal Democrats – encompassing a fair voting system for all elections, reforming the House of Lords into a Senate, and developing a written constitution.

The motion passed in September 2020 represents an important foundation for the creation of an England of the Regions

It sets out principles for the UK to become a union of its nations and regions.  In relation to England, it says we believe in a truly federal United Kingdom with an equitable distribution of resources between different parts of the United Kingdom based on their respective needs. It refers to federal and state governments in which subsidiarity applies to the nations and regions of the Union and in which the exercise of public responsibilities is decentralised as much as is reasonably practicable. It says that the Upper House should become representative of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom and that there would be a federal Council of Ministers to enable the governments and parliaments of the various parts of the Union to work better, building on the work of joint ministerial committees.

The motion however says nothing about local government. It does not say how many English regions there should be, nor what exact powers they should have. It does not say anything about taxation or how resources would be redistributed. It implies each region can have ministers but not for which departments. Clearly, the detail needs to be filled in – hence the working group.

The working group has met nearly every Tuesday since 1 December and has produced a short consultation paper for discussion at 4.30pm on Sunday 21 March at Spring Conference.  

At the same time, we have produced a brief survey which we would be glad if all members would complete.  

Pending this consultation exercise, we have avoided being too definite about our conclusions, but we have explored the matter widely.  As good Europeans we have studied how federalism and devolution work in some other European countries and have learnt lessons from their experience.  We have been especially interested in how Germany has been governed since 1949.

Liberal Democrats have long championed the cause of federalism, devolution, and decentralisation. We support home rule for the three nations – Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. However, the English question has never been satisfactorily resolved. Is England a single entity with its capital in London? Should the regions of England (however they are defined) be treated in the same way as Scotland or Wales or should they have different powers? 

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed serious shortcomings in the way England is administered. England is over-centralised and other countries with less centralised structures have shown better management of the pandemic.   One stark piece of evidence of this over-centralisation is the proportion of public expenditure under the control of “sub-national” government.  In the UK that is a measly 25% whereas the average in other OECD countries is 40% and in Germany 50%.

As we deal with the impact of Brexit alongside our wish to ‘level up’ the poorer parts of England, there are encouraging signs that other parties are waking up to the need for a new constitutional settlement across the UK. We must start to develop now the detail of what we mean by a federal England. 

Following the consultation session at Conference and analysis of the replies to the online survey, the working group will start to develop a motion for the Autumn Conference.

There are also likely to be consultative sessions with regional parties in England and through ALDC – both before the end of June.  The feedback from these sessions will also inform the deliberations of the working group.

* John Shipley has been a Lib Dem Peer since 2010 and is a former Leader of Newcastle City Council.

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34 Comments

  • Andrew Tampion 18th Mar '21 - 11:04am

    First of all the Consultation Paper seems to me to be confused because it discusses matters that are not directly connected with a federal UK such as reform of the House of Lords.
    Second the survey is too prescriptive. All of the questions should have a “don’t know”/”none of the above” option together with a box for free form comments. For example question 5 only gives 3 options. My preferred choice would be 2 or maybe 3 regions. But I am forced by the question to choose a minmum of 6 regions so I have no option I can support.
    I can’t help thinking, perhaps wrongly, that this is designed to give the answer the authors of the survey want rather than genuinely seeking views.

  • David Craddock 18th Mar '21 - 11:07am

    It’s a privilege to be on the working group with Lord Shipley and I am looking forward to the consultation session with members at the Conference on Sunday. I am particularly interested in how we communicate Lib Dem beliefs and policies on this subject. I believe that this is an area that sets us apart from the much centralised approach of both the Tories and Labour. It is a USP we should celebrate and communicate more effectively. Federalism per se may not be a vote winner, but talking about the benefits of a Federal structure maybe: It’s a fairer and better way to govern the country, it would give back control to local communities and regional economies, and it would provide local authorities and regions with more control over tax spending on much needed public services.

  • John Marriott 18th Mar '21 - 11:19am

    As someone for whom a Federal U.K. has been a dream for many years I am bound to say that I concur with much of that Lord Shipley has to say and, after a quick perusal, much that appears in his Group’s Consultation Paper.

    While you can, at a pinch, identify the four ‘nations’ that currently inhabit the British Isles, although, when it comes to the island of Ireland, one ‘nation’ is divided basically on sectarian grounds, in terms of population and geographic size, there is indeed an elephant in the room that, it could be argued, makes equal distribution very difficult.

    The comparison with the Federal Republic of Germany is somewhat invidious. ‘Germany’ as a political entity, has only been around since 1871. Before then, between the first ‘Reich’ under Charlemagne and the second under Bismarck, the various German speaking mini and maxi states developed on their own lines, hence an allegiance to the ‘Land’, which is only rarely emulated in England, for example.

    So, in order to produce some kind of equality, it would be necessary to divide England into Regions, and the best of luck with that. However, there IS something that could be done before tackling the former task, namely, to achieve an equal playing field as far as Local Government between the ‘Nations’ is concerned. Correct me if I’m wrong; but I believe that in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, below their Parliaments/Assemblies they operate a system of Unitary Authorities and what, I think, are called Neighbourhood Councils. So, why not finish the job in England first started after Redcliffe Maude and continued under Banham and scrap the remaining District and County Councils, replacing them with Unitary Authorities, retaining Town/Parish Councils and, while we’re at it inject a bit of common sense into local government finance?

  • Could Lord Shipley please define exactly which powers in “home rule for the three nations” are to be denied to the said three nations, and how this differs from the powers supported by the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Green Party ?

    I, for one, (and I guess a fair number of Liberal Democrats) no longer have a wish to be part of an English Tory dominated UK in terms of nuclear weapons, foreign affairs and exclusion from the EU.

  • Like @David Craddock I have been a member of the working group that produced the survey and the consultation paper. We have been asked to help “develop” policy in this area and so we have started with what is already agreed.

    To address @Andrew Tampion’s point about the House of Lords, last year’s motion linked that very closely to Federalism. Indeed I think it’s fair to say that without a chamber of parliament that does represent the regions, it will be difficult to balance regional powers against those of central government. That is clearly crucial in Germany and in other countries that we have looked at.

    With regard to his other point about offering an option of only 2-3 regions I will admit that it didn’t even occur to us to suggest so few as an option. But his point is noted.

  • Thanks to the Working Group for their work so far, the Survey seemed quite reasonable to me – the “forced” questions are an attempt to get Us to actually make some decisions.

    England has little historical basis for Regions which is an argument for not trying too hard for a rational, consistent structure, we can live with mess as long as it takes power away from the centre.
    On that point, it is vital that Regional & Local Government raise their own money, with the power to vary Tax levels within reasonable limits. What we have now is largely Local administration of Central Money.

  • Peter Davies 18th Mar '21 - 1:02pm

    Perhaps the reason the motion said nothing about local government is that this is a matter for the nations and regions.

  • John Marriott 18th Mar '21 - 3:12pm

    @John Kelly
    Mention of a Second Federal Chamber, which I support for purposes of scrutinising primary legislation and your reference to what I assume to be the Bundesrat in Germany, reminds me of what I wrote on another thread. The Bundesrat predates the Bundesrepublik; in fact it was around in Bismarck’s day. It is, as you probably know, a revising chamber and its members are nominated, not elected, by the 16 Bundesländer. That’s how I would see a Second Federal Chamber working over here. It’s my ‘four vote formula’. With elections for the U.K. Federal Parliament, Regional Assembly, whose ‘control’ of policing could eliminate that expensive and largely unnecessary PCC, a Unitary and a Town/Parish Council, staggered over, say, a four year cycle that’s surely not too much for any potential English elector. Oh, and I forgot. All elections would be by PR.

  • Brad Barrows 18th Mar '21 - 3:59pm

    The elephant in the room is Home Rule for England. Each country of the UK is equally deserving of the right to Home Rule – I’m sure many in England will find it unacceptable that England will be denied a Parliament to make its own laws. Splitting England into regions does not address this need unless people imagine that different regions in England could end up with different laws!

  • Brad, you will observe from our questionnaire that we have asked three possible scenarios. One is a set of English regions having exactly the same powers as Scotland (and by extension, having Wales and NI equivalent too, remembering it is already Lib Dem policy for Wales to become a separate legal jurisdiction). This would indeed mean that laws and the delivery of justice could diverge within England. Whilst this might not be liked by some, this does not actually mean that England is no longer a “nation”, so it doesn’t actually represent “splitting” England. The second option is a set of regions which do not have exact equivalence to Scotland: some matters such as law and justice would remain common across England. However, this option does /not/ mean that a unitary England must be the constituent state of the federation (the third of the three options given, in other words a four-state union).

    The Regions can be constituent states of the Union and with parliaments and with their regional representation in our new equivalent of the Senate/Bundesrat, AND there can be a separate all-England body for English legislation.

    Either way, the third option of having a unitary English state as a federal unit is a poor choice and one that previous party policy has rejected. It creates an imbalanced union and solves none of our problems, nor does it redress the centralised nature of England which can’t be adequately addressed merely by tweaking local government. We need regions either way, and I hope the party membership continue on the path that our previous policies have set in this respect.

  • If we don’t accept that we need regions of some form or other (whether 6, 9 or 19 of them?) then I think we forever condemn England to be a horribly centralised country. How could we then sell the notion of an English Parliament in the presence of a powerful regional tier? That Parliament would be 85% identical to the UK Parliament, remember, and therefore open to accusations of waste and redundancy and an excess of politicians. The issue would inevitably reduce to a binary choice: either regions or a powerful English Parliament, but not both.

    However, as much as I trust the party membership will not go down the route of abandoning regionalsim, that option is very clearly in the questionnaire because we felt duty-bound to allow the membership that full choice.

  • John Marriott 18th Mar '21 - 5:14pm

    @Brad Barrows
    Regarding “different laws for different regions” it surely depends on which laws you mean. At a very basic level each county or Unitary has “different laws” already. Take refuse collections, or libraries, or social services, even education (not that much of the latter comes under the jurisdiction of a local authority any more).

    The way they get round the problem of local competences in Germany is interesting. Education in Germany is the responsibility of the ‘Land’. Any change proposed in education has to be agreed by the now 16 Land Education ministers before it can be introduced. This is decided in the delightfully named “Ständige Konferenz der Kultusminister”.

    When I was teaching in what was then West Germany in the mid 1970s it had just been decided to reform the 6th Form curriculum by introducing a points system for university entrance. I was teaching in a Gymnasium (Grammar School) in Niedersachsen, which at the time was firmly under Social Democrat control. The reforms were being introduced, not without protest from the more conservative unions, while I was there. When I returned to the U.K. and several years later ended up in a Lincolnshire comprehensive and around 1982 accompanied a school party on an exchange to a Gymnasium in Landau in the Christian Democrat Rheinland-Pfalz, the reforms had only just taken place. It took nearly a decade for all the Länder at the time to change; but they all got there in the end.

    So it’s possible to achieve consensus. You just have to be patient!

  • As a fan of Pointless I am always intrigued by the way contestants describe where they come from, particularly those who say “We are from London”. Nobody says “We are from Yorkshire” or “We are from the North-East”. Yet for many us on the outside looking in London has a form of regional government and looks like a region. Is it just that some people don’t want to admit to living in an unfashionable part of London? Or is there something else going on here. I have no idea!

  • Mark Smulian 18th Mar '21 - 5:28pm

    ‘Federal United Kingdom’ gives an acronym perhaps best avoided.

  • I’ve done the survey – I hope this is OK as I am Scottish, but I did live in England for a while, and at one point while working in public health we used to deal with the various health regions, and I’ve often felt that’s about the right size for better devolved powers.

    John is correct that in Scotland all Local Authorities are now Unitary Authorities and I think that will be essential if you are to convince people that a new layer of government is not just another layer of bureaucracy. I know it’s still a mix in England, but my experience of both is that it’s much less confusing with single tier local government, but I concede that some unitary/county councils in England might be larger than any in Scotland.

    It’s not the only reason for a federal England, but the massive imbalance in population between England compared to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland can pose problems. Often these are ideological more than practical, with nationalists upset that “England” can outvote “Scotland” due to having more MPs. IMO, that’s an issue with perception rather than reality, but the UK as a whole would feel more balanced if the largest regions within England were not too much bigger than Scotland, with the exception of London, as it has its own existing boundary which should remain.

    While I thought, for the time-being at least, you’d want a single legal system and laws for all of England, I’d be comfortable with differences in approaches to policing etc. I’m thinking in particular towards drug offences and anything that isn’t just a about law and order, but public health and the community.

  • Geoff, I’m not sure I see what you’re getting at, probably because I have never seen Pointless. London is both a city and a region. It is a region in its own right because it is enormous – it really isn’t practicable to have any other solution in a regional context. It has formed and is continuing to form a specific identity that has, for example, pretty much obliterated things such as Middlesex. I suspect a lot of Londoners aren’t going to bother being specific about which part of London they are in when describing where they are from to someone who obviously isn’t from London. On the other hand, there are parts of Essex which are now very much part of Greater London and other parts of Essex which to those of us from the outside seem to be “very much part of Greater London” but which for the locals are still “very much Essex”. We can’t really avoid that sort of confusion.

    People from Leeds or Sheffield will usually say they are from Sheffield/Leeds if asked a non-leading question, but if you ask them for a regional identity they will mostly say Yorkshire, I’m sure.

    But none of this is clear cut.

    What all this suggests is that there is little point getting hung up on identities that wax and wane over time, and that we have to live with such confusions over what exactly is East London and what is Essex, etc.

    What matters is that if we are to form a proper regional tier of government, it has to be rational. It has to satisfy wherever possible people’s senses of identity where they want those to be satisfied as well as satisfying the reality of our C21st economy and demographics. Regional identities aren’t something that will be created simply in order to beat people over head with and to “tell them what/who they are”. It’s just a rational structure of government that hopefully will satisfy as many people as is possible. Which won’t be everybody. Ever.

  • Fiona, in reply to your touching on the legal jurisdiction issue: I would observe that as long as the UK remains a single country, economy, society and market, people can cross the English-Scottish border as though it weren’t there and yet be stepping into a different legal jurisdiction and having to come to terms with different laws, different methods of buying houses, and so on and so on. Just as they do from state to state in the USA although the distances there are mostly an order of magnitude different. I have never particularly noticed this as a barrier to Scots living and working in England or vice versa. Why, then, would there be any particular problem in having several legal jurisdictions within England?

    The proximity of large population centres is rather different: whilst it takes a long time to get to Glasgow from England and with the intervening areas being not densely populated, for large parts of England it takes far less time to travel between significant centres of economic activity. The day-to-day working of a densely-populated England might be hampered by legislative divergence. Or not? Is it really an issue? I don’t know. Regardless of that, the idea is something that will attract a lot of resistance from people who think it means “abolishing England”. As a member of the Working Group I declare that I am happy with the notion of separate legal jurisdictions but pragmatically I accept that it is highly unlikely to attract majority support.

  • Thanks for this article.

    I see no point in having a few very large regions; to me the point of regions is that they should better reflect geographic, historical, and suchlike factors plus of course practical things like communication links.

    So, in other federal countries states vary hugely in population. In the US, the current average is 6.6 million, the largest (California) 39m, the smallest (Wyoming) 0.6m. In Germany, the average is 5.2m, the largest (Nord-Rhein-Westphalia) 18m, the smallest (Bremen) 0.7m.

    In the UK some are easy to pencil in – for example Greater London (8.9m) is an obvious pick as is Yorkshire (5.3m) which has a strong sense of identity.

    But what about Cornwall (0.57m)? It’s ‘only’ a county yet has a distinct identity and is a long way from Westminster so I get the impression its somewhat neglected (speaking as someone who has only every been there briefly and long ago). I think it should be favourably considered to give it a stronger voice. Also, given its Liberal tradition, that might be politically astute.

    And what of Cumbria (0.5m)? The north & west (former Cumberland) tends to look to Newcastle which is only ~60 miles from Carlisle and gets NE regional TV programmes while the South Lakes used to be part of Lancashire for good geographical/communications reasons.

    FWIW, I saw recently that the government is considering a proposed local government reorganisation in which one option is to make it a single unitary authority but it’s a big area. Carlisle to Barrow is two hours by road. It gives a whole new meaning to ‘local’ government. It could work for regional government though.

  • I suggest the working group integrate the practical politics of selling the idea from the off (but is that within their remit?). As presented, there are several items that the Tories would seize on and, with the help of their friends in the media, turn into very scary monsters.

    For one, ‘Federal’ doesn’t mean what most Lib Dems think it means – devolution and so on. The Tories successfully redefined it so that for many (although probably not readers of LDV) it means ‘centralised’. Charles Kennedy belatedly realised this, but it’s still not widely appreciated – so when Lib Dems argued for a ‘federal’ Europe it was heard by many as “we want an unaccountable superstate”. Hence, Brexit.

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/02/european-federalism-eu-debate-superstate

    The solution is obvious; the word ‘federal’ should be banned in all messaging and replaced by variants of ‘devolution’. That opens the door to a sustained attack on the Tories record.

    Another thing the Tories do repeatedly that works well is NOT to unveil the whole plan at the outset or try to do it all in one go, rolling with the punches and seizing on opposition mistakes. So, I think it would be a huge mistake to suggest HoL reform at the same time – simply a bridge too far.

    For example, when they took on the unions in the 190s it was done by salami-slicing, several fairly modest bits of legislation, each bedded down before the next. The miners’ strike was the grand finale.

    Similarly, with the poll tax. There was a long run up with think tanks, backbenchers etc. all saying how unfair it was that a household with, say, 2 parents and 2 grown up children could get away with contributing no more to council tax than a single pensioner. There were stories of fancy cars, Porsches etc., on council estates. All made up of course, but given the lack of pushback, quite effective.

    A practical difficulty as I understand it is that Lib Dems MPs are mandated to do XYZ; they just don’t have the constitutional autonomy to do the practical politics, horse trading etc. that works for the Tories but must try to win by head-butting their way through. Any offers on when this approach is going to start working?

  • The Conservatives have made devolution, not federalism, a dirty word. Devolution means faux-accountability for local politicians whilst central govt holds the purse strings or imposes unwanted elected mayors or quango-like authorities (such as the Greater Cambridge Partnership city deal which has unelected members) as strings attached to money.

    The notion, Gordon, that we should abandon the idea of proposing something different but instead continue with “devolution” is quite baffling.

  • Mario Caves 19th Mar '21 - 7:51am

    “Is it just that some people don’t want to admit to living in an unfashionable part of London? Or is there something else going on here. I have no idea!”

    It’s not that people “don’t identify” with their region, they do. It’s because they more naturally identify with the locality in which they live, work, do their shopping, and spend much of their time, which in most of the country is their town.

    London is quite different, very few people in London spend their time in only their local “village”, If they leave their home and go to work or go shopping, then they’re likely to travel across several local authorities, dozens even, and not really know when they’re passing from one to the other. It’s all “London”. In many ways, it’s just one huge village.

  • @Michael – you are quite right, that most of the time people don’t have much issue with slightly different laws in Scotland from England and Wales. Of course, this has always been the way, so moans about certain differences are usually just grumbles while people get on with it. It might be different to create new boundary lines with legal differences, especially if it’s not always very obvious that you are moving from one jurisdiction to another. Hopefully any new legislation making areas won’t be looking to implement radically different laws to their neighbours in the first week, especially not if it’s to make previously legal things illegal. I’d hope it would be more the other way around – ideally more progressive areas decriminalising the possession of drugs for personal use.

    Other aspects might be things like changing licensing laws, or Sunday opening and so on. I lived in England for years, yet was regularly surprised by Sunday opening hours, but it’s not as if I could end up in jail because I turned up to Sainsbury’s before it had opened.

    I’m not sure how this would work in terms of establishing a Federal England, but I’m sure there could be some UK or England-wide legislation that deliberately leaves the opportunity for subtle changes decided by the regional assemblies. For example, if we are to have a points based immigration system, I’d want to see different parts of the country allowed to allocate extra points for those who take particular jobs in particular areas according to local need.

    NHS England currently has seven regions: East of England, London, Midlands, North East and Yorkshire, North West, South East & South West
    https://www.england.nhs.uk/about/regional-area-teams/

    It would be helpful if we could get the insight of the success, or otherwise, of the NHS’s selected regions.

    By comparison, there appears to be 9 Government Office Regions.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regions_of_England#List_of_regions

    If you add in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, that brings us to a UK total of 10 or 12, which feels about right. I’d say the smaller the size of Federal regions, the less authority each one would have. If you want more devolution of decision-making than that, it would be best to transfer it to Unitary Authorities.

  • Laurence Cox 19th Mar '21 - 12:48pm

    I agree with Gordon’s comments on the size of regions. For some parts of the country, like Cornwall, the county is also the natural region. We have seen enough disputes when the Boundary Commission suggests a cross-Tamar constituency to appreciate that one cannot simply force Cornwall and Devon together, even as part of a larger region.

    Similarly, we should not be too rigid in defining the boundaries of London. The LCC governed a much smaller area than the GLC and now the Mayor/GLA. Although the Tories would not extend control of all of London suburban rail to the Mayor, there is a case for making transport links the principal defining factor of the London boundary, even though that would bring parts of Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent and Surrey into London. Again it is essential that we get buy-in from the people in these areas, so any changes need to be supported in referenda.

    One other change that I would add is to make MPs (elected by PR) ex-officio members of their local regional assemblies. By moving more powers downwards to the regional assemblies, the length of time that MPs need to be present at Westminster could be reduced; we have already seen that virtual parliament can be made to work, so even that presence could be remote.

  • Rif Winfield 19th Mar '21 - 2:56pm

    What is NOT useful is to propose a “one size fits all” solution, either in terms of defining the boundaries of a “region” or in terms of deciding what powers and responsibilities should be handed over to such regions. Also we have to build on what already exists, rather than to start with a blank canvass. It is certainly correct that the Cornish, with a strong sense of Celtic identity, remain opposed to being subsumed into any “South-west England” putative region, and any regional arrangement must make provision for smaller (in population terms) areas such as Cornwall or indeed Cumbria; these are on a level (in population terms) with nations such as Luxembourg or Malta, so there is no reason why their district identity should not be recoghnised in a regional structure. In terms of London, which under any criteria should be recognised as a districtive region, there is a need to look again at the boundaries and extent of such a unit; my own view (as someone born in “Middlesex” and who has been active in London politics, is that the sensible London boundary should become the M25 motorway, which would entail bringing into the capital areas which are largely suburban to the capital in most ways, and which for many purposes are dependent upon the capital for much of their services.

    But we do not need (certainly initially) to had over to the regions of England, once defined, the full set of powers which have been given (and may be extended) for the nations already having their own national governments. The powers held by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not ALL need to be given over to each English region, unless and until such region might request such devolution and agree to accept responsibility and accountability (to its citizens) for the consequences.

  • Rif Winfield 19th Mar '21 - 3:01pm

    Corrected for a few typos:

    What is NOT useful is to propose a “one size fits all” solution, either in terms of defining the boundaries of a “region” or in terms of deciding what powers and responsibilities should be handed over to such regions. Also we have to build on what already exists, rather than to start with a blank canvass. It is certainly correct that the Cornish, with a strong sense of Celtic identity, remain opposed to being subsumed into any “South-west England” putative region, and any regional arrangement must make provision for smaller (in population terms) areas such as Cornwall or indeed Cumbria; these are on a level (in population terms) with nations such as Luxembourg or Malta, so there is no reason why their distinct identity should not be recognised within a regional structure. In terms of London, which under any criteria should be recognised as a distinct region, there is a need to look again at the boundaries and extent of such a unit; my own view (as someone born in “Middlesex” and who has been active in London politics), is that the sensible London boundary should become the M25 motorway, which would entail bringing into the capital areas which are largely suburban to the capital in most ways, and which for many purposes are dependent upon the capital for much of their services.

    But we do not need (certainly initially) to had over to the regions of England, once defined, the full set of powers which have been given (and may be extended) for the nations already having their own national governments. The powers held by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not ALL need to be given over to each English region, unless and until such region might request such devolution and agree to accept responsibility and accountability (to its citizens) for the consequences.

  • Michael Kilpatrick – ‘Devolution’ would work for me personally, but I can imagine that it doesn’t for others. Wording is something that should be tested ahead of any public launch.

    Laurence Cox – I like your idea of making MPs ex-officio members of their local regional assembly. They might well see it as a way of pressuring the government to pay more attention to their region much as the ‘Red Wall’ Tories have been doing.

    Separately, what powers are proposed for the regional assemblies? Going straight to fully-featured assemblies with powers comparable to Scotland or Wales might well be a jump too far given that, unlike Germany, England has no history of federalism.

    An alternative would be to start with a rather short list of powers and build on that. And for my money the place to start would be strategic infrastructure. That would get popular buy-in from both sides of the Pennines for the much promised but never delivered Northern Rail. And I’m sure other regions have comparable pet projects. Northumbria would like to see the A1 dualled to the Scottish border and I suspect South Devon and Cornwall would like to see the inland rail route avoiding Dawlish where the mainline was washed away in a storm a few years ago at immense cost to the local economy.

    That would fit hand in glove with responsibility for economic development. IMO Health might usefully be added to the mix in some way but probably later rather than trying to run too soon. I don’t know any details, but I’ve read that Denmark has regionalised healthcare very successfully.

    That could perhaps be presented as a variant on ‘take back control’ (which tested rather well!) without frightening the horses.

    Also, if regional assemblies are to work there must be a ‘demos’ – that is an informed and engaged electorate with a strong interest in the performance of their elected representatives and independent information on their performance – i.e. media that reports on their doings and misdoings.

    That implies paying attention to the circulation of such print newspapers as still exist and also the footprint of regional TV channels.

  • The federal arrangements for England should be decided by the English people not politicians or worthy working groups. Our job is to make what is decided by the appropriate deliberative democracy structure workable. Without this bottom up approach any attempt to force federalism on England will fail.

  • Rif Winfield: there are many people who have said “not all regions should have the same powers” but I believe it requires no more than a cursory thought to appreciate what a dog’s dinner that actually implies.

    What it means is that certain health or education or transport policies would be governed regionally by (let’s say) Yorkshire, Greater London or Wessex. In each case, each region could have a different set of powers in those three policy areasy. In each case, therefore, the central British (or English?) government departments would have a different remit. The education dept might have powers over half of the population of England but the transport dept might have powers over only 10% of England. Or 90%.

    If every region selects arbitrarily from a menu of powers then nobody will really know who is responsible for what. Voters will disengage from such a chaotic, unintelligible mess. Govt ministers will exist as ministers but won’t be speaking for all of the UK or all of England. Some ministers might only have responsibility over 10% of the country.

    MPs from Yorkshire would be voting for education policy in Greater London that doesn’t affect Yorkshire constituencies. The MP for Worcester would be voting on health policy for Suffolk but which doesn’t affect Worcester because it’s handled by whichever region Worcester is in. This is a hundred-fold West Lothian Questions and you’d have to answer that by having a hundred different version of English Votes for English Laws.

    But saying that all regions should have the same powers is not at all the same as saying all regions should be the same size in population or any other sense.

    The superficial “liberal” principle of letting people have what they want but not making everyone have the same thing is, at least in terms of this legislative and adminstrative decentralisation, a fallacy. It’s a recipe for obfuscation and lack of accountability and transparency. Whenever I hear the phrase “one size fits all” I hear a meaningless empty mantra being used a substitute for thinking about the real consequences.

  • Peter Hirst: I think it’s reasonable to say that we expect some form of Consitutional Convention but that isn’t to say that a political party should not have its own clear ideas as to what powers should be decentralised, whether it would be better to have lots of small English regions or a few big ones or a very mixed-bag, and so on (without being prescriptive on exact boundaries). I think it would be a pretty rum idea to call for the Convention without our own ideas to lay on the table and with which to inspire the electorate into action.

    The question on deciding how we regionalise England, for example, can be viewed from different angles. Remember that in Germany the power exists to change, merge or divide regions. Look up the recent history of Baden-Wurrttemburg state. If we believe that the people should always have the ultimate say, this doesn’t preclude us suggesting that an initial system of regions be implemented but with a subsequent set of referendums at any future date, any number of times, to endorse the solution or implement changes that better suit people’s view.

    What’s more, whilst a bottom-up contribution to such matters is vital, it is not the complete answer. Far from it. An entirely bottom-up approach is basically self-selective, first-come-first-served, for if there is no external moderation to the process, those who are first off the starting blocks get to cherry-pick their own regional geography which could be prejudicial to neighbouring areas. I don’t consider that at all reasonable.

    I would like to ban all of the expressions: bottom-up, top-down, one-size-fits-all, devolution-on-demand. We need less of this “mantrification”.

  • We already have a dogs breakfast of powers with the devolution that exists.

    Has Lord Shipley forgotten the outcome of the 2004 referendum on a North East Regional Assembly back in 2004 ? The result ? : the vote to reject it 696,519 (78%), only 197,310 (22%) voted in favour. Is there evidence this has changed ? Given the current state of the economy now and post covid, does unelected Lord Shipley really believe there is a clamour and an appetite for an extra layer of government on top of that which exists ?

    I suppose he could ask the poor Lib Dem soul due to stand in the Hartlepool by-election to run it past the electorate, but I doubt it will be a vote winner.

    The furthest I would go is give full Dominion status and powers to Scotland and Wales, and for Westminster to pump resources to revive local services in English local government (which took a real hammering post 2010). After that in England, set up unitaries and beef up their powers.

  • David Raw, the vote in the NE was on a toothless, pointless talking shop. Not on a proper democratic chamber with real powers moved wholesale downwards from Westminster. it was quite right that the electorate of the NE rejected that poor offering.

    However, localism for me in the East of England should not mean “the people of NE England get to determine that I never even get asked if I want something here, based on their rejection of something that was entirely different and a full 17 years ago”.

    Secondly, you just suggested that in England we set up unitaries. For many of us that means reducing the number of tiers of sub-national government by one: counties and districts disappear in favour of a single body. This then contradicts your earlier assertion of extra layers of government: we would not be adding to the number of tiers of government. It’s highly likely that most parts of the country, in the face of a proposed regional tier, would welcome moving to unitaries provided their scale is appropriate – and not the excessively large unitaries that the Conservatives have proposed fairly recently.

  • @ Michael Kilpatrick “David Raw, the vote in the NE was on a toothless, pointless talking shop”.

    You may well be correct, Michael, but funny you say that because the Liberal Democrat MPs, including the then Mr Edward Davey, all trooped through the lobbies to vote for the “toothless, pointless talking shop” when it was introduced by the then Labour Government back in 2004.

    It’s all in Hansard if you want to look it up.

  • Jason Matthews 12th May '21 - 2:30pm

    There needs to be areas defined by the Party at large. Starting with the South-west; Devon & Cornwall, Bristol & Somerset, and Dorset. Southern England; Hampshire, Berkshire, and Surrey. South-east; Kent, Sussex, Essex, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire. London; Greater London. Eastern; Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. East Midlands; Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, and Nottinghamshire. West Midlands; Staffordshire, Warwickshire, West Midlands, Shropshire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire. North-West; Lancashire, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Cumbria. Yorkshire. North-East; Durham, Teesside, Northumberland, and Tune & Wear.

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