Is regional devolution the way forward?

Many states around the world, such as the USA and Germany, are federations made up of relatively individual regions that enjoy varying degrees of autonomy. Here in the UK, we have devolution. Powers given to elected representatives (separate from those in the House of Commons) in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and a handful of “combined unitary authorities” in England. Each have had different successes and failures and each have their own problems and strengths. So how do we learn from these to make them, and new ones, better in the future and what form should that take?

I, for one, would advocate for the idea of more regionalisation via regional devolution. We have seen in countries like Portugal, Italy and already the UK that this can work but I would like to see it work everywhere. Manchester and the West Midlands are great examples of how giving political power to the areas closest to the action result in benefits such as better local economy, as seen in the West Midlands with the region having an economy similar to some European countries such as Slovakia, and greater political satisfaction, shown by Andy Burnham’s (relative) popularity.

I believe passionately that the UK would benefit from this model being implemented across the country, giving local authorities the powers over items such as transport, health and social care, education and some levels of taxation. The local authorities in question, in my opinion, ought to be elected bodies (via direct proportional representation) in the regions defined in 1994. Giving these powers to these areas will allow for the decisions that affect local people to be taken locally because, as it stands in England at least, those decisions lie with the government who may not be aware of issues in your area.

The national side of this, however, may become financially expensive. In an ideal world, this version of regionalisation would ideally need a major airport in each region as well as the reversing of the Beeching report (1963), both of which would require investment. This would give local access to foreign cities as well as giving remote towns the chance to have their previously closed stations back and this, provided services were regular, would increase the use of railways over cars, make major cities in these regions bustle once again as they are used as hubs, allow local businesses to thrive off of that thus providing jobs and thus driving local economic growth and, in addition, a cleaner environment.

This is a mere snippet of what there is to say about the case for regional devolution in the UK and in England in particular. If we, as a political movement back this idea or one similar, I feel it may prove popular especially in the current, disaffected climate of our politics.

Local power for local people is the way forward.

* Jack Lee-Brown is a student and a member of the Liberal Democrats

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16 Comments

  • Ian Patterson 6th Feb '24 - 10:30am

    The North East tried this approach. It lost.

  • Laurence Cox 6th Feb '24 - 11:58am

    Paradoxically, the region in which this could most easily be done is Greater London where the Mayor and Assembly already hold some of these powers. The Party may be reluctant to support this as a successful implementation would mean even more power concentrated in London as opposed to at Westminster where the vast majority of MPs represent constituencies outside London.

  • David Evans 6th Feb '24 - 12:45pm

    Indeed Ian,

    And as you probably know in 2003 the North East was chosen by Labour for two reasons

    1) It was considered to be the most likely area to vote in favour, with a strong regional identity, and
    2) It would create a rock solid Labour authority.

    The referendum was lost by 499,000 votes – 696k against, 197k for.

    Quite simply even in the optimism of the Blair years, people thought there were too many politicians and voted against having more. In the present climate, it wouldn’t surprise me if such a proposal went down by over a million votes!

  • Jack Lee-Brown 6th Feb '24 - 1:21pm

    Thanks for the comments!

    It should be recognised that we are in a different political world to 2003. We are already seeing a form of regionalisation being implemented in the form of the mayoral system. It is being widely accepted (apart from Bristol who’s mayor was frankly a shambles).

    The argument for it today, I think, is that it gives real, region-changing power to areas that may feel politically isolated such as the North East(1). The current Westminster system does not work well for local issues. It is currently party first, representation second I feel. Unfortunately, I am far too young to remember if this was the case in 2003!

    Cheers!

    (1): https://www.northumbria.ac.uk/-/media/documents/pdfs/departments/social%20sciences%20and%20languages/research/from%20regionalism%20to%20localism.ashx

  • Perhaps I’m being simplistic but if you shift more power to regional elected politicians then it is appropriate to reduce the number of politicians in the body that you took those powers from. That might be a sellable argument in the North-East but it would not convince those who have little faith in the democratic process itself.

  • Martin Gray 6th Feb '24 - 4:26pm

    Another set of professional politicians – earning a salary & benefits the average voter can only dream about ..
    As all too often these days – they’ll be university educated state middle management types who’ve never had to do a triple shift in their lives …No thanks

  • Peter Davies 6th Feb '24 - 6:51pm

    @Laurence Cox You are right that London would be the easiest place to have proper regional government. If you are right about the party’s reason for not backing it more strongly, they are wrong. Ministries that had no power in London would come up with far less Londoncentric policies.

  • Andrew Tampion 7th Feb '24 - 7:39am

    I agree with David Evans and Martin Grey that there is no appetite for regional assemblies in England. I believe that this is because most English people consider themselves to be English. This might be because I consider myself to be English but not a Midlander though I live in Leicestershire. I think that a proposal for an English Assembly sitting ouside London, Birmingham or Manchester would be good choices, might be supported by the public. Such an assembly would have the advantage of promoting investment outside London. Regarding the proposal for a major airport in each region if the regions are the same as used for the EU elections that means 9 major airports. Is there really the demand and what are the imlications for reducing CO2 emmissions?
    It might be possible to divide England in to 2 or 3 regions. Say the north and south of England and perhaps the west country.
    Then there is the question of the legacy Westminster Parliament. If it only dealt with Defence, Foreign Affairs, immigration, International and intra UK trade, thge do we need more than say 450 MPs?

  • My recollection is that Labour’s attempt at creating a devolved assembly for the north east sank because it was perceived as yet another layer of grifters and jobsworths on the make, with no convincing argument in its favour. The present government’s interest in rolling out regional mayors should alert us to look for ulterior motives – in my view it’s actually a way to diminish local councils and concentrate power. Over much of England regional mayors elected by the shires gives the Tories a way to control the towns that are more likely to vote Labour.
    Local authorities and councils are generally very poor at communicating with their electorate, by choice it seems. Local press is in decline and has not been replaced by reliable online media, so many people know very little about what local government does and even less about which politicians achieve anything.
    Until the electorate are kept informed and given reasons to trust their politicians, regional assemblies have no chance. The LibDems could make a start by being honest with members and the electorate. There’s a long way to go.

  • Having lived through the previous years of hope about constitutional and parliamentary reform, I can understand why some readers are sceptical about Jack’s proposals. But I applaud them. Reforming the way we govern ourselves is an absolute necessity if we are to avoid a collapse into totalitarianism – in England, at least. Just look at how local government is organised on https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/election-maps/gb/: since regional government was abandoned as an ideal, the pattern of local authorities is a mind boggling hotch-potch of mayors, combined authorities, metropolitan districts, unitaries, counties, districts (have I missed any?). Presiding over this mayhem is Westminster. No – promoting all this mayhem is Westminster. Government *wants* to divide and rule.
    I am not confident we can avoid right wing totalitarianism, and I certainly don’t trust Labour to reform the way we govern ourselves. But Liberal Democrats must continue to champion the cause of effective regional and local government.

  • Jenny Barnes 7th Feb '24 - 9:36am

    ” (have I missed any?). ” yes. Town and Parish councils.

  • David Evans 7th Feb '24 - 10:47am

    Jack, Thanks for your reply, most author’s here don’t bother.

    However, I am afraid you totally misunderstand when when you say “It should be recognised that we are in a different political world to 2003. We are already seeing a form of regionalisation being implemented in the form of the mayoral system.”

    As I pointed out in my first post, in 2003 there were two drivers
    1) to use the NE as an outrider and then justify a wider rollout on that expected democratic mandate
    2) to gain political advantage.

    What has happened with all the ad hoc elected mayors and council reorganisations has simply been a drive by both Labour and Conservatives to steadily split the country into bits the reds control and bits the blues control. Both are prepared to give the other side almost absolute control of their bastions in order to gain absolute control over their own.

    This drives the competent middle, the Lib Dems, into the role of a small irritant in a sea of red or blue. It is in no way a drive to devolve power.

    It is a drive to concentrate it.

  • Jack Lee-Brown 7th Feb '24 - 11:40am

    Thanks all for the respectful responses and debate about my proposals.
    I apologise for my supposed naivety about this issue but, I must admit, it is more based on ideals than reality.

    Yes, regional devolution (should it ever become a reality) should result in less MPs and possibly a smaller government/cabinet.

    Yes, it is possible that there is no appetite for regional devolution in the form I proposed. This, however, shall not deter me in campaigning for it.

    Thanks again to all 🙂

  • David Evans 7th Feb '24 - 1:04pm

    Thank you again Jack.

    You are right to be determined to *support* regionalism. The key thing is to *campaign* on issues that are concerning the public at the time, and offer a solution that is a sensible Lib Dem solution that moves the needle just a bit more towards our liberal ideals.

    The key is to win, sort out the problem, then find another issue and do it again. Don’t overdo it and scare the public by proposing a radical solution that makes it easy for our enemies to undermine our position so we don’t win.

    Losing while being 100% right is not a good idea.

    There lies failure and despair – for you, for us, and for the British people.

    All the best,

    David

  • Ann Kerridge 10th Feb '24 - 2:29pm

    “Most English people consider themselves English” not in Cornwall, an early adopter of a one tier authority, with strong aspirations to be a region (or country) in it’s own right

  • Peter Hirst 17th Feb '24 - 1:13pm

    We should certainly look at a Federated structure for England. I’m amazed at the power of the regions in Germany and America. I’m sure that amount of power would attract people especially following recent events at Westminster. It could be driven by an English Citizens’ Assembly with a referendum following detailed proposals by the central government. So all or none decision though powers could have a local input.

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