Devolution to get excited about…Part 1

Whatever happens after the Brexit negotiations the problem of ordinary folk not having a voice in the ever expanding global village will remain.  Leaving the EU will not make a jot of difference to isolated Stoke or distant Newcastle.  I firmly believe that the only way to give people a meaningful  voice over their day to day living is through devolution.

As a Liberal Democrat I am excited by devolution.

Devolution is about bringing power, influence and decision making closer to those it affects. It is meant to mean “Power to the People!” So where is the enthusiasm? Where is the excitement? When did you last talk about it down at the pub or around your dinner table?

The truth is that the devolution conversation is limited to politicians who in their clunky, British, evolutionary way discuss, and agree, things like Combined Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships. One step at a time! This hasn’t stirred the local populous and I don’t see many people manning the barricades. We need a singular vision, focus and leadership to thrill people, to show them that there is an exciting future for where they live. A future rooted in their quality of life both at work and at play. This, and only this, will generate the clamour for change.

To develop a coherent and exciting picture for  devolution we have to cover a lot of ground including the areas of life we want to devolve alongside the actual power we are transferring from national government.  For me permission to spend national taxes under the watchful eye of Westminster is not devolution.  Hence I have called this first article Part 1 and rightly or wrongly I am going to start with the geography of devolution.

Like all good presentations I will start with a joke:

Have you heard the one about the Mayor of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire? No I am being serious! The Tories tried to establish a Combined Authority of all the councils in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire including the cities of Derby and Nottingham. Don’t be fooled, nothing was meant to change for the councils.  This was an additional authority, another level of government, with more politicians and more bureaucracy. No wonder we didn’t take it seriously!

Tinkering is not the answer, there is an absolute need to create brand new, single unitary authorities sweeping away the current chaos of councils. A single council is the only way to get that strength of vision, singular focus and determination to drive change.

I have made the case to combine Derby, Nottingham and their hinterlands into a single unitary authority .  The article identifies that the ancient boundaries of our historical counties do not make sense in the modern world.  The boundaries of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were essentially agree by Alfred the Great and the Viking warlord Guthrum, both counties have a proud history but, in governance terms, one that ignores the rapid expansion of Manchester and Sheffield during the industrial revolution.  It also identifies that key strategic assets namely East Midlands Airport and Junction 24 of the M1 lack democratic focus with the subsequent missed opportunities for the area.  Finally, for good measure, it shows savings in excess of £12.7 million in the cost of councillors and senior officers.  It is interesting to note that the area is currently served by 614 councillors (excluding Parish), or one councillor per 2,374 persons compared to one councillor per 8,950 in Birmingham.

Exciting devolution cannot be achieved by tinkering, we need to redraw the boundaries of local government to reflect modern communities and how people live their life’s in them.  I will turn to how big these authorities should be in future articles but the ability to deliver local services will be crucial. We cannot repeat the mistakes of the last major reorganisation which gave us the County of Rutland!

Agreeing on our communities, and what defines them, is the first step in building an enthusiasm for devolution and provides a framework for a sensible conversation between those who feel that they have been left behind and the politicians of the future.

* Following a career in the Royal Navy Steve has worked at a senior level within health, local government, criminal justice and voluntary sectors. Wilts County Councillor (1989) and NW Leicestershire District Councillor (1995)

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  • Peter Martin 13th Sep '17 - 8:50pm

    “As a Liberal Democrat I am excited by devolution”

    Why? The experience of many is that central government hands out responsibilities to regions and cities but doesn’t hand out the powers necessary to enable them to properly fulfill those responsibilities. Even if it does there are major disadvantages.

    Central government is the currency issuer. It can borrow money extremely cheaply because depositors know their money is 100% guaranteed. This applies to no-one else. So if a regional or city council borrow to build a bridge or a hospital then it would have to borrow at a higher rate of interest. Depositors naturally demand a higher rate of interest because of the inherent risks involved.

    We, the taxpayers, still need that hospital or bridge built so what is the point of us having to pay a higher rate of interest than we need to? Why pay 4% on municipal bonds, when we would only have to pay less than 1% of treasury bonds or gilts?

    The sensible approach is for central and local government to work in partnership. Central government has the financial muscle. Local government often, but not always, has a more intimate knowledge of what is required.

    And for goodness sake lets not get into any more so called Public/Private Finance Initiatives. “Initiative” is not at all the right word. These just mean hospitals and schools have to pay even more on borrowed money. Many are now financially crippled by the stupidity foisted on them in the Blair/Brown years.

  • Little Jackie Paper 13th Sep '17 - 9:30pm

    Yes and no….

    I’d agree that the boundaries are a problem. My own area certainly doesn’t fit into the ‘historic’ boundaries well nowadays. This isn’t just a theoretical problem. It basically would mean that to me devolution would mean taking one remote set of national politicians and replacing them with another set of local remote politicians. The attachment to so-called ‘historic’ boundaries is something that perhaps we need to look beyond, I’d agree with you on that.

    But it’s this I don’t really get. ‘For me permission to spend national taxes under the watchful eye of Westminster is not devolution.’ Well…OK. Devolution is not the same as delegation. But frankly is effective delegation such a terrible thing? Many government agencies have a regional structure. The NHS runs on boundaries that, in my experience, are responsive and make sense on operational need. Why should, say, the Environment Agency work to the same regional structures as the Highways Agency? There’s no reason that these regional structures can’t be expanded on and better used.

    We do have local authorities already that are under-used too of course.

    So there’s my suggestion. No unpopular new layers of politicians. No new power structures. Take the regionalism we have in place already and use it better and more effectively. If that’s delegation rather than devolution then so be it.

  • Antony Watts 13th Sep '17 - 11:41pm

    What we have to distinguish is those matters that can and should be devolved and those that cannot. Then also the depth of the devolvement.

    What are, by the way, the decisions that are devolved to my parish council of a village of 200 people???

    No let’s be sensible, it’s vitally important what you devolve, probably more than the level to which you devolve it. Drumming away on a “Devolve” ticket is pointless.

  • Sorry to be unkind, Steve, but so far, almost a day since you posted, your article suggestiing people should be “excited”, has attracted just 3 comments (4 including mine) – fairly weighty comments, of course (this time excluding mine!)

  • Tim 13 Sorry to be enthusiastic but I do believe that any future democratic settlement needs to give people more say about their day to day lives. The alternative is increasing cynicism and growing polarisation.

  • Hard to get excited about devolution, sadly, based on everyday life in Wales. I don’t ‘average’ folk feel any more empowered than they did in 1998.

    Our old county councils were axed as an ‘unnecessary tier’ in 1996. Plans in recent years to merge our 22 single-tier councils into four, or eight or nine ‘super-councils’ were unpopular, as they were seen as reducing people’s say in things locally.
    People in small towns don’t like being ‘swallowed up’ by big conurbations they feel then get the lion’s share of attention and money. People in one valley don’t like decisions about their lives being taken by councillors from the next.

  • Neil Sandison 15th Sep '17 - 12:28pm

    Its not that i am against devolution but its to whom we devolve power too . Cabinet ministers and the chancellor of the day have made a mockery of the Localism Act proscribing many of the powers we did have through the NPPF . Like most good liberals i still believe power should be devolved to local communities and not to mythical regions that can be as equally remote and from their citizens as central government .

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