Opinion: A real answer to the ‘English Question’

One of the more interesting policy papers to be debated at Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in York is ‘Power to the People’ which sets out with the aim of providing a blueprint for a federal UK. In almost all areas it is a brilliant paper which offers a clear, radical, liberal vision of the future of our country.

However, there is one flaw in this paper. And that is the embarrassing fudge which it offers when it comes to English Devolution.

It proposes that England use Single Transferable Vote proportional representation for local elections – so far so good – but then completely goes off of the rails.

London, population 8,000,000, and Cornwall, population 536,000, will automatically get devolved assemblies while everywhere else in England it will be up to local authorities to decide to club together until they reach a minimum population threshold of one million at which point they’ll be allowed to ask Westminster nicely for devolution under an ‘English Devolution Enabling Act’.

This, of course, runs completely contrary to the fundamental liberal principle that power belongs at the lowest possible level rather than being dispensed benevolently to lower levels from on high.

It is also a recipe for a complete and utter mess. An arbitrary population threshold seems to imply that areas below one million in population are too small for devolution to work but then ignored this in Cornwall where it apparently will work despite having half the population of the minimum requirement.

It also offers no thought to the complexities and confusion that will arise when people in one area have a fully devolved local government but a neighbouring area is still governed from Whitehall.

England deserves better, and liberals should be able to offer better, in terms of a way for England to share in the decentralisation that we propose elsewhere in the UK.

That is why I hope Liberal Democrats will back my amendment to this policy paper.

The amendment proposes that, instead of piecemeal, only-given-if-they-ask-nicely, devolution, all of England gain the same devolution at the same time in the form of new devolved assemblies covering areas based on the historic counties of England and the three great cities of Greater London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands Conurbation with the consolidation of existing local authorities into district unitary authorities.

The reason for this approach is simple. England as a country is too big for devolution to the entire country to deliver any meaningful benefits. But while people don’t identify with the broad, artificial, regions of England, they do identify with its counties. Even though the historic counties and current local government areas often have little to do with each other, county identities and county institutions (such as country cricket) still thrive even today.

The vast majority of historic counties are large enough to make full devolution work (after all, the smallest US state of Wyoming has a population of 582,000) and, where they are not, the provision in the amendment for assemblies to agree to combine powers offers a bottom-up mechanism to resolve it rather than the top-down mechanism envisaged in the original conference motion.

It is my hope that conference will back this amendment and provide a wholesale answer to the English Question rather than the timidity of piecemeal semi-devolution.

The sponsorship of ten conference voting representatives is required to submit this amendment for debate at York. Those interested in sponsoring it or finding out more should email [email protected]

* George Potter is a Vice-Chair of the Social Liberal Forum and a campaigner for Guildford Liberal Democrats, writing in a personal capacity.

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42 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Feb '14 - 5:45pm

    I agree we should be against a piecemeal devolution act, but my concern is that whilst we are trying to simplify laws to help the economy, politicians are proposing more complication and variation. There needs to be a balance between localism and harmonisation. There seems to be a big disconnect between what is important to business and what is important to politicians. This disconnect needs bridging.

    We can talk about devolution, but no devolution debate is complete without a critical analysis.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Feb '14 - 5:49pm

    The economy is important to everyone. We can’t just say “right this is a social motion” and “this is an economic motion”. It’s all interconnected.

  • Little Jackie Paper 20th Feb '14 - 6:37pm

    Good article. I would suggest a look at what happened in Rutland for an idea of some of the issues here.

    http://www.theguardian.com/society/2002/mar/13/localgovernment.politics

    But I do think that this bit is muddled:

    ‘It also offers no thought to the complexities and confusion that will arise when people in one area have a fully devolved local government but a neighbouring area is still governed from Whitehall.’

    Well that’s true, but the risks are exactly the same for when two neighbouring areas are governed by different devolved institutions. Talking the talk about devolution is well and good, and power may well belong at the lowest level. What about the accountability side of the coin though? As an example think about a localist response to a credit crunch. Our devolved authority then throws its weight, by popular demand, behind new credit unions – queues then form at the door of those credit unions and a central bail-out follows. This isn’t a problem in the neighbouring area though, because they didn’t set up lots of credit unions. Where does accountability lie there?

    The term postcode lottery might be trite, but it does make the point that there are winners and losers. ‘Power at the lowest level,’ is great for those able to raise a majority and the distinction between majoritarianism and democracy can be very fine indeed. Think house-building and property prices. Saying to the priced out that they should appreciate the localism of their situation doesn’t really solve the problems.

    So yes – let’s think about the architecture for devolved power, but that structure does need to take cognisance of accountability as well as power. Both parts are important.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Feb '14 - 6:55pm

    Yes George, I don’t want to be pedantic and I do prefer uniform rather than piecemeal devolution, I would just tone down the substantial powers part, because of the importance of the single market.

    From the EU website:

    “rather than adding to red tape, Single Market rules often replace a large number of complex and different national laws with a single framework, reducing bureaucracy for citizens, and compliance costs for businesses, who pass those savings on to consumers.” (I agree they don’t always pass on the cost savings!).

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Feb '14 - 6:57pm

    I forgot the link. Useful for anyone wanting a liberal critique to over-devolution.

    http://ec.europa.eu/internal_market/benefits_en.htm

  • David Allen 20th Feb '14 - 7:01pm

    “It also offers no thought to the complexities and confusion that will arise when people in one area have a fully devolved local government but a neighbouring area is still governed from Whitehall.”

    I would suggest that this would indeed be a nightmare, so it should not be admissible. Until all regional government areas are agreed, none should come into operation.

    Sure, that means some provision for central diktat in setting them up. But that’s unavoidable anyway. There are bound to be places where X wants to join with Y, Y prefers to join with Z, X wants to join with A, and A wants to be alone. When that happens Whitehall will have to decide, TINA!

  • George Potter is right about one thing — England is too big for a single parliament or assembly. One of the great advantages of living in Scotland, Wales or NI is that the population is much smaller than the population of Greater London and therefore it is hard for the politic elite to hide .
    But I think George needs to consider again his faith in traditional counties. Since Unitary Authorites started to get established around twenty years ago the role of the traditional county has withered in many places. Postal addresses and cricket teams are not the foundation for a sensible system of govern,ent.
    Piecemeal local government change over 25 years has produced a dog’s breakfast of local authorities. The lack of coterminosity with other public authorities such a police or healt results in confusion and inefficiencies. The vested interests within some layers of local government and politics of cowardice at nationa level have resulted in a repeated failure. I think George has identified part of the problem but I am not convicted by his suggested solution.

  • Peter Davies 20th Feb '14 - 8:03pm

    Or more simply, nobody thinks they are in the same region as Cumbria.

  • Peter Hayes 20th Feb '14 - 8:10pm

    I do not know where I live, LibDems say Southwest, BBC Freeview says West Midlands, Virgin Media gives the Bristol based local news. If there is ever regional government it needs to be based on affinity to similar places and that means the electorates will vary dramatically. Just compare the population density of London and the Highlands and Islands!

  • Peter Hayes 20th Feb '14 - 8:22pm

    I should add my previous home in Macclesfield is now in East Cheshire. What does Macclesfield have in common with Crewe never mind the neighbouring Man United footballers in Prestbury and Wilmslow & Alderley Edge or Osbourne’s constituency of Knutsford. You either end up with a fragmented England or one country with a single assembly.

  • I thought the real challenge wasn’t the county level of government, but the newer regional level of government and making the quango’s that largely form this level of government fully exposed and accountable to the public.

    Otherwise I agree with George that we need a nationwide (UK&NI !) devolution to all at the same time within a consistent framework rather than the piecemeal approach that we’ve had todate and that some (opportunist’s?) think is the way forward.

  • Alexander Matthews 20th Feb '14 - 9:05pm

    The problem many here seem to forget is that many individuals simply do not wish for devolution at this time (unless it is an English Parliament); however, some areas, such as Cornwall, are completely obsessed with the idea.

    The point of this system is that it allows individual areas to devolve when they are ready. Also, the idea that this is asking Whitehall nicely is hyperbolic; Whitehall simply would not have the political coinage to refuse any request that meets the minimum standard, unless there was some insanely good reason.

  • Alisdair McGregor 20th Feb '14 - 10:43pm

    Joe has an extremely good point when it comes to Sheffield economic region. Both Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire are very long thin counties, and the northern parts of both look as much towards South Yorkshire as towards their respective cities in the south of the county.

    When you get right down to it the “historic” counties are as artificial as anything else in political boundary terms. Bassetlaw looks towards Yorkshire. Nottinghamshire is a post-danelaw legal construction that doesn’t have much coherence as a geographic or economic entity.

    What are you going to do about the rump part of Middlesex that didn’t get absorbed into London, for example?

    Building from the bottom up is the only way forward. And if that means people choose different levels of devolution, that that’s fine. Because that’ll be their choice.

  • @George Potter — yes a lot of agreement on the problem. How do we overcome the vested interests to bring about change? Add to that the nightmare of trying to get a Liberal Democrat Conference to vote for a resolution and an amendment and the problems in the Ukraine start to look easy in comparison.
    Definitely agree with you about Kingston being outside London. When I was on the board of Kimgston University we tried everything we could to get Surrey County Council to move out of this London Borough and into the county of Surrey. Not only would this have been logical, better for the residents of Surrey who might want to attend their county council meetings without having to travel out of their county to do so but it would have enabled Kingston University to expand into the buildings o the other side of the road. Everybody would have been a winner — which is no doubt why the Conservatives on SCC were against it. 🙂

  • The first thoughts have to be directed towards how proportional representation can be accepted and introduced at a local level. This, after all, is key to any devolution that follows;. The AV debate should concentrate our thinking here. Is it possible or desirable to direct local government to use STV? Should we propose mechanisms for how STV or another system can be introduced in accord with local wishes. For example Councils could be given the right to adopt PR and also the local electorate could be given the right to demand a local referendum on the issue if a threshold proportion of the electorate demand it.

    Top down imposition of STV in the party manifesto might look good to us and allow us to reaffirm our commitment to democratically representative elections, but in reality are not likely to get off the ground.

    As councils look to collaborating with other councils in order to improve cost and quality of provision, there is scope for local government to establish their own regions. Again, a top down approach is more likely to engender resentment. For example, where Cheltenham or Gloucestershire belongs should be decided by those who live in the area: there are strong connections to Worcester and Evesham or further west towards Bristol and Somerset and also to the east into the Oxfordshire Cotswolds; if a boundaries are decided in Whiteholl, they are more likely to be rejected.

  • Surely the only answer to the English Question is to give us our Indpendence and an Engligh Parliament.

  • Julian Tisi 21st Feb '14 - 9:31am

    I’m going to be a dissenting voice here. I don’t want to have regional assemblies and regional devoluion at all. I just don’t see what problem it solves, nor do I see many people calling out for it, outside our own party. Scotland and Wales are different, because they have a clear national identity and enormous public acceptance for a great deal of control over their affairs. But the “English question” is I think a made up problem which excites political nerds and no-one else. I’m against regional assemblies etc because I think it will add an extra layer of cost and complexity to government when none is needed or demanded.

  • Yorkshire Guidon 21st Feb '14 - 10:14am

    @Julian Tisi. Go to http://yorkshiredevolutionmovementt.wordpress.com/ and you will see a fairly compelling case for a directly elected assembly for Yorkshire

  • Getting involved in discussions about where to draw lines always generates more heat than light. I speak from experience of constituency, council and local party reorganisations. When LEPs were set up after 2010 they chose their own borders. Mine is Essex, Kent and East Sussex. If I think that’s odd, I have to change control of Essex CC not legislation or a Minister’s mind.

    In France municipalities can draw up co-operation agreements with each other as they choose for particular services e.g. One waste collection organisation for eight areas. With so many councils moving to commission rather than provide services, size matters less.

    So, empower all councils to work more closely together. Allow all areas to bid for “city region” powers, not just the chosen few. Many smaller Districts are already sharing senior staff. Joint working should be made as easy as possible.

  • Once again this argument revolves around boundaries without thinking about what these new authorities would actually do and how they would do it. Opponents can then set one ‘community’ against another, say it will cost a fortune without actually producing the evidence other that ‘ more politicians’ and the proposals fail. The NE region referendum which was lost should have taught us how not to do it.

  • Peter Chivall 21st Feb '14 - 1:52pm

    Nobody in a General Election is ever going to vote for the dog’s breakfast of wish lists that Policy Committee have cobbled together in their Motion to Conference at York and George Potter’s ‘County plus’ idea is just as bad. Assuming that the Scots people, however much they detest and resent Westminster/ Whitehall government (as do I), refuse to sign up to a Salmondite future for Scotland, we will need a simple and transparent Constitutional settlement that gives effective Home Rule for England, as for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If I were able to move an Amendment to F14, apart from “delete all” after Line 37, I would propose:
    A single chamber Parliament for England, based at least 100 miles north of London (preferably alongside HS2 and the M1), would be elected on a similar proportional basis and given similar powers and responsibilities as the present Scottish Parliament, including reform of Local Government and devolution to regions as appropriate.
    The two Houses at Westminster, which are both well past their ‘sell-by’ dates and not worth the effort of reform, would be ‘merged’ (i.e. abolished) and replaced by a UK Parliament with residual responsibility for Defence, Foreign Affairs, basic Social Security and the City, elected on a PR basis.
    No longer would the peoples of England suffer having their Health and Education services dependent on the ‘casting vote’ of a Scottish Highland MP ‘gone native’ in Westminster.
    It would be for an English Parliament, proportionally elected, to decide on the best way to run Government in England. Sorry George, Counties are neither as old or as recognisable as you think. Peterborough was attached to Northamptonshire until 1964, then merged with Huntingdonshire until 1974, when it in turn merged with Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely until 199? when it departed to become a Unitary Authority. Neither are our Regions so logical – they are basically post-War constructs used for administrative convenience by the Civil Service. Where I live is in the Eastern Region, but is as close to Shrewsbury as it is to Lowestoft.
    When I used to work in a Youth Advice centre in Peterborough, we often had to redirect parents who phoned us from addresses in Lincolnshire or Northamptonshire; ‘but we’re in Peterborough – it’s our Postcode.’ Even mighty Yorkshire is not so clear cut: Ian Swales constituents in Redcar might identify with their cousins in Leeds or Hull or they might just think of themselves as ‘Teeside’.
    Like it or not from Berwick to Bere Regis, there is only one identity around which the majority will coalesce. We may be afraid of it becoming a Tory-led one party state, as Labour obviously do, but as Liberal Democrats advocating a proportional system we should believe in what is right and democratic. Let us have a simple message, our USP for 2015: “Home Rule for England”.

  • >So, empower all councils to work more closely together.
    This to me really gets to the heart of the problem, the UK just seems to not be very good at fostering collaboration and cooperation, preferring to create conditions that either set people against one another or prevent them from sharing resources.

    @Yorkshire Guidon – the blog you linked to doesn’t give a compelling case, in fact it contains very little of any substance other than the cries of those wanting a directly elected assembly. The impression I get is that the various local authorities in ‘Yorkshire’ are unable or unwilling to get their act together and work for the common good.

  • Yorkshire Guidon 21st Feb '14 - 4:14pm

    @Roland. Why do you feel the need to put the word Yorkshire in inverted commas like it doesn’t really exist as a proper noun? Are you from ‘Lancashire’?

  • Tony Greaves 21st Feb '14 - 4:53pm

    The posting and comments here show just how far this party has moved from having an agreed and settled policy on regional government in England. For those of us in the North of England this is a disaster.

    As for traditional counties, that’s just a daft idea. They no longer exist in any form that has real meaning.

    Tony

    By the way, Cumbria is in the North of England.

  • @Yorkshire Guidon
    In general I’ve use inverted comma’s as it is not clear just what exactly will define the boundaries of the proposed Yorkshire Regional Assembly. Yes I know many simply think of the historic county of Yorkshire, but I’m aware that boundaries have changed over the years, plus if we are to set up a regional assembly, should it be restricted to historic boundaries that may not be relevant today? So I’ve used inverted comma’s to indicate that we may not be talking about the same entity.

  • Steve Bradley 21st Feb '14 - 5:26pm

    Does a constitutional settlement for England need to be looked at seriously ? Yes. Are counties the appropriate structure through which way to do that ? No.

    I’m from Ireland – where the islands 32 counties are pretty sancrosanct in identity terms, have been for centuries, and would be messed with at a politician’s peril. I therefore find the concept of counties in Britain as rather anachronistic in identity and administrative terms. Some counties exist without really existing (e.g. Middlesex), some are brought in and out of existence at whim (e.g. Rutland), some are so big they get chopped into subdivisions (e.g.Yorkshire), and some ‘historic’ counties no longer reflect the economic and social realities within their former boundaries – e.g.Newcastle was historically part of Northumbria, whilst Gateshead part of Durham. Yet it would be daft to not administer them together as part of a combined unit (and I would argue the same re Sunderland, as reflected by the 40yr old ‘Tyne and Wear’ concoction.

    So something needs to be done to improve devolution and reduce centralisation in England. But counties are not an appropriate mechanism through which to do that in my opinion, as it is far too arbitrary and reflects neither modern identities nor realities.

  • Steve Coltman 21st Feb '14 - 5:28pm

    I generally agree with George’s proposal but we need to stop and think how we are going to sell this. We lost the AV vote and it will be a long time before that issue is put to the electorate again. If we don’t play this right we will lose again. If devolution is the answer, what is the question, or problem? If the electorate cannot see what problem devolution will solve they won’t vote for it. If you asked the people ‘do you think Britain is well-governed, democratically governed, governed in the interests of it’s people and according to their wishes?’ you are likely to get a big NO! Fine so far, but then ask what are we going to do about it? You won’t get a clear answer. There needs to be general agreement that the UK has a constitutional problem. I don’t think getting agreement on that will be difficult. Then we have to define exactly what the problem is, suggest several solutions, pick out one solution and explain why it is the best and take it from there. There is no point being several jumps ahead of the electorate, we will simply not get their support.

  • Steve Deller 21st Feb '14 - 7:18pm

    The government has already failed to give equality to the UK countries oitside of Scotland with a vote on independence for each country simultaneously. That move would have allowed pro UK politicans to debate without being accused of interfering . Now we intend to treat England as regions and not a country in it’s own right. When did we stop believing in equality?

  • Yorkshire Guidon 21st Feb '14 - 8:59pm

    Reading through this there seems to be an emphasis on structures. Surely the starting point is what do you want devolved power to deliver and then decide the best structure to do that. If you believe that devolution should deliver everything except defence, foreign affairs and macroeconomic policy then the structures should thus follow.

  • @Yorkshire Guidon
    “Surely the starting point is what do you want devolved power to deliver and then decide the best structure to do that”

    I agree! 🙂

  • Tony Dawson 22nd Feb '14 - 8:13am

    @Peter Civall:

    “Like it or not from Berwick to Bere Regis, there is only one identity around which the majority will coalesce. ”

    Sorry, I am BRITISH, not ‘English’. I have no more ‘identity’ with people in Cornwall or Norfolk (where I have not visited) than those in Scotland and Wales (where I have lived).

    But functional devolution does not rest upon ‘identification’. It rests upon administrative efficiency, including effective community participation.

  • Alexander Matthews 22nd Feb '14 - 11:48am

    As I said, the problem is that far to many English people would see building up England as an attack on their identity.

    Right now, the calls for a devolved English Parliament are an emotive thing – and so those calling for it are thinking about it in any sort of practical, administrative way.

    The calls for regions, such as Cornwell, to be independent are a mix of emotion and practicality.

    However, those looking at this from the purely pragmatic mindset can see that an English Parliament is neither practical, nor administratively effective. On the other hand, if done carefully, then devolution on a slower and more focus scale could be possible.

    As such, the only way forward that is practical and in any way meets the needs and wants of the different interest groups in this issue is a devolution on demand.

    This way, Whitehall is not see to be forcing the break-up of England, but is still allowing the regions which are very focused on independence to have some sense of self-determination.

    Of course, it has been rightly pointed out that our council/local government system is currently confused, defunct and generally unfit for purpose. However, if done correctly, then this could be used as solution to that problem by enabling us to start making more focused and empowered local authorities that have a clearer remit (split from Whitehall) that are more linear in structure, but locally adapted in practice. Whitehall could set down the blue-print for what a basic local authority should look like, whilst the local administration could adapt that blue-print for the local regions needs. Furthermore, this would also provide the perfect chance for us to start removing and unifying some of the broken and more out-dated levels of local government that areas may still have.

  • Simon Banks 25th Feb '14 - 4:14pm

    Alexander has hit the nail on the head. Most of us would like thorough and systematic devolution, but especially in hard economic times and in a climate of mistrust for politicians and politics, I doubt we could get that, either by a general election or a referendum. The proposal George is opposing would at least allow progress where there was solid support behind it and local authorities would generally make sensible choices on what grouping they’d like to join. However, as George points out, real devolution is possible to units much smaller than one million. Half a million would be viable. The problem with the piecemeal solution is not so much the mess it would create quickly – after all, look at our local government system now, with unitaries, shire counties and districts, some of whom have agreed to share some things, plus the special status of London (and London boroughs) and other public authorities for police, health and so on based on different boundaries – but that it would make a rational, sensible devolution across the whole country more difficult.

  • Gareth Parr 4th Mar '14 - 1:43pm

    George,

    interesting proposals but my home city of Liverpool would be finished as a major city if they were implemented without modification. Basically, our next nearest major city, Manchester, gets a metropolitan focused government that even includes places as un-Mancunian as Wigan. Meanwhile, the Liverpool metropolitan area is partitioned, with the Wirral going into a Cheshire ‘länder’ with the rest of us being lumped into, probably a Preston-based, Lancashire including places as far off as Barrow. And why? All because Liverpool isn’t ‘great’, which means what exactly? Each to their own on that one! Actually, George, this is a good academic example of why Liverpool has struggled these past few decades: centralised, Whitehall-knows-best, ‘one size fits all’ diktat which rarely works in the city’s favour and more often than not positively undermines it. Much of it has involved trying to integrate Liverpool into a Manchester-focused North West province, as reflected in everything from aviation to broadcasting. HS2 is the latest major example, which if built as proposed, will plug directly into Manchester, moving the main North/South rail line through the North West from in between the two major cities eastwards, essentially relegating Liverpool to backwater status.

    I’m not totally rubbishing your proposals. I agree that counties and cities are probably the best units to devolve power within England, so long as the country remains a unitary state. You won’t be able to make a federal UK though. It may seem like pedantry to make a distinction between a federal UK and a highly decentralised one, however, the legal consequences are significant. In a federal state, each constituent part has a legal and sovereign existence. It would be politically impossible to break England up into federal units in this manor and an English ‘state’ government would have to exist in between the federal level and the county/municipal level. In a devolved set up, this wouldn’t necessarily be the case and so my recommendation, for now, would be to devolve to local government in England. I would recommend that all of English local government becomes unitary. The boundaries of the largest cities should be looked at, as most are under bounded. Whilst these would lead to very large authorities for the likes of Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, this could be countered by district or neighbourhood boards, as can be found in large cities such as New York, which is several times larger than any of the aforementioned yet runs perfectly well under a single city council.

    Taking into account how gradual and multi-speed devolution in the UK has been, I suggest a more American approach to local government devolution may be more appropriate than the generally top-down prescribed approach that’s more typical in continental Europe. Most (though not all) US states operate a system where counties or municipalities are granted a home rule charter. The charter sets out what responsibilities the state government reserves, allowing the local government to act anywhere where it isn’t explicitly prohibited from doing so. I would make this available to any unitary authority, with the charter subject to approval via a local referendum. Specific powers could be negotiated and it may well be that it is a gradual process of more powers over time, like in Scotland and Wales, however, I would suggest that powers on offer be at least equivalent to the Welsh Assembly powers from when it was first set up.

    As for the size of the local authorities, what I don’t understand is why the trend has been to insist on larger and larger authorities in order for them to be perceived as viable. Rutland may only have a population of 37,600 but that makes it larger than three Swiss cantons; the smallest of which is Appenzell Innerrhoden which has a population of 15,717, less than half of Rutland’s. And Swiss cantons are very powerful. They effectively run everything from healthcare to education and law enforcement. I don’t see why it’s practical there but impractical here.

    So yes, home rule for our cities and counties. For Liverpool, at least, it couldn’t come soon enough.

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