LDV hosts debate on devolution – “Just do it”

Lib Dem Voice and the local government think tank Localis co-hosted a debate yesterday under the title ‘What should the Lib Dems offer on devolution in their manifesto?‘. I started by pointing out that our policies were not a secret and we had been discussing the manifesto for the last year or so, most recently in Liverpool. But the debate still threw up some interesting challenges.

Stephen Williams, the Communities Minister, argued strongly that the next government will have to devolve a range of powers to local government almost immediately after the election; not only do all the main parties advocate it but there is growing pressure to do so around the country, especially post Indyref. The UK devolves fewer powers away from central government than any other country in the EU.

The Lib Dem policy is for more substantial devolution on demand, and throughout the debate the Lib Dems emphasised that, rather than impose a unified system straightaway, it would be better to allow practice to emerge from the grassroots as areas became ready to take on more responsibilities, as has happened recently in Manchester. As a first step, Stephen would prefer to see a flatter structure, replacing two tier counties with unitaries, bringing power closer to the people.

John Shipley, is Cities adviser to the government,  having been a councillor and Leader of Newcastle Council himself and now working in the Lords. He has been involved in developing Local Growth Deals and City Deals, so is well placed to comment on devolution to our great cities. He claimed that more than £30bn could be transferred to local government under devolution on demand. Much has been written on the subject; we just need to get on with it now.

John also thought that local government was not very good at devolving power down to local communities; a point taken up by Caroline Pidgeon, who praised the pioneering work on this in Kingston.

Earlier Caroline, Lib Dem leader on the London Assembly, had made a strong case for more powers to be devolved to London. Other great cities around the world manage far more public services than London does, and have greater tax raising powers. London could take on responsibility for all blue light services, as well as commuter train services. She proposed hotel taxes to capture some of the wealth pouring into London through its commercial and tourist trade. Further devolution would offer greater control over jobs and housing for the people of London.

The final speaker, Tony Greenham from the New Economics Foundation, brought a welcome ‘outside’ perspective to the discussion. Tony co-authored ‘People Powered Prosperity‘ with David Boyle – a book that all Lib Dems should read, and you can download it for free here.  He argued that political devolution was not the whole answer, and that we should look at economic devolution as well. People in the UK should be able to save locally and invest locally, and he regretted the loss of local building societies. We should follow the German model and encourage local public savings banks. He also spoke about local currencies, such as the Bristol pound.

The Lib Dem speakers all agreed that devolution is not an issue on the doorstep, but, as Caroline pointed out, it could be if we explained the benefits in terms of employment and housing.



* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • George Potter 25th Mar '15 - 2:01pm

    This is, presumably, the same Stephen Williams who gave a quote to a newspaper rubbishing the calls of the leader of Liverpool Liberal Democrats for devolution for Merseyside which would include a devolved assembly.

  • “John also thought that local government was not very good at devolving power down to local communities; a point taken up by Caroline Pidgeon, who praised the pioneering work on this in Kingston.”

    As the person who co-wrote the Kingston Liberal Democrat policy on devolution of power to Neighbourhood Committees along with then Chessington Councillor Ian Osborne (recently moved to Southern Spain) this is quite a compliment from Caroline Pidgdeon. I seem to recall Caroline coming to see us on a fact-finding mission from Brent in the mid-90s when with a majority on the council we put the policy into practice in Kingston Borough.

    Of course we stole the idea and much of the implementation plan from the excellent Eric Flounders and the pioneers in Tower Hamlets, who were a least eight years ahead of us. 🙂

  • John – Caroline mentioned that she brought a fact-finding team from Southwark to Kingston, and they then set up community committees modelled on our Neighbourhoods.

    As I remember, the problem in Tower Hamlets was that they set up mini-Town Halls in each Neighbourhood, whereas in Kingston we created virtual teams at the Guildhall. This also had the advantage that the Neighbourhood officers from all the Neighbourhoods worked together and shared good practice. I found that invaluable when I was leading on community hubs and also community policy-making.

  • I have not followed the devolution debate within the Party, however I would make these points on the matter in light of developments since the Scottish Referendum.

    Given that Scotland has its own parliament and the SNP are unlikely to press too hard for another independence vote whilst the price of oil is so low [apparently at least medium term] – surely the real solution is to give each region, within the UK, the right to exactly the same powers as those given to Scotland – and this should be actively encouraged by the government.

    Although the worst off in society might look forward to being treated more compassionately under a Labour government – it does look, barring any new major developments, that Alex Salmond’s threat to vote down a minority Tory government’s Queen’s Speech is likely to ensure that the next government will be a coalition led by Labour. The Barnett formula – the ‘short term’ solution to adjusting the amounts given to Scotland, Wales & NI for public expenditure by Joel Barnett in 1978 [since branded a terrible mistake by Barnett himself] – already provides greater per capita expenditure to the Scots compared to those in England and we are very likely to witness the ridiculous situation where Salmon will be able to squeeze Miliband for extra [and unwarranted] funds by virtue of the fact that the SNP holds the balance of power.

    Since it is possible that Miliband will not be able to hold his Party together if he succumbs to Salmond’s most outrageous demands – another GE within a couple of years cannot be ruled out. On the basis that TF is the Party’s new leader by then, this would give him the opportunity to define a new arrangement that did transfer similar powers to all regions of the UK as presently granted to Scotland and, at the same time, provide for an elected House of Lords – so that those Lords who have gained their peerages through doubtful means, particularly as a result of being large donor to one of the mainstream parties, are kicked out Westminster.

    Such measures might appear very attractive to the electorate given the many scandals that have arisen recently and the low regard in which MPs are generally held. Such a headline policy might herald a new era for the Party [something of note is going to be needed to ensure that it does not to sink into obscurity].

    There does not seem to be any reason why the majority of the internal administration of the nation should not be undertaken by the regions and a more federal approach adopted. This would then require just a small group of MPs from each of the regions to attend meetings of the central government to administer those aspects that cannot be devolved. Defence is an obvious case as are foreign relationships [including with the EU] and the taxing of the multinationals.

    Perhaps if this were the only income central government had to fund their activities there would be a much greater incentive to ensure these mammoths paid their fair share of tax! Apparently the Houses of Parliament is becoming almost beyond repair – perhaps this is timely. A federal government is likely to number little more than 100 [10 from each of 10 regions?] and could easily be housed in some already existing building [perhaps a largish Starbucks could be hired on the infrequent days that the federal government were required to meet!].

  • John R: Yorkshire Lib Dems want a Yorkshire parliament and have explicit policy on this. None the less were are having Shipley’s bloody rubbish city region combined authority crap foisted on us. At least they’re calling it West Yorkshire Combined Authority and not Leeds City Region, but it’s functionally the same, and we’re hopping mad about it up here. Devolution on demand only works if you listen to what the actual demands are, and don’t foist your favoured solution on people anyway.

  • John Roffey 26th Mar '15 - 5:06pm

    Jennie: You may have noticed that I specifically offered my suggestions as Party policy once TF became leader [which seems to have been accepted will be the case after the GE]. Do you know if it is also his wish to follow the convoluted path you have outlined?

    To my mind the Party’s future is in real doubt after the GE – particularly if Farage becomes an MP as he will be a difficult force for the main party leaders to cope with in the HofC [irrespective if you agree with his views]. The Greens are likely to increase their appeal as the party of protest. Unless the Lib/Dems have some notable policies [equidistant does not qualify] there would appear to be little chance of voters rushing to support ‘bland’ when there are other clear alternatives on offer.

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