Opinion: And you thought EVEL was difficult…

Manchester Town Hall ClockOur party has saddled itself with a totally unworkable policy on devolution, but the formulators and protagonists of devolution on demand simply don’t understand why it’s a passport to total confusion.

Let’s consider a future House of Commons where legislation is being considered for schools. A vote is needed. Ah, but not everyone can vote because there’s been some devolution.  Let’s see now. This legislation won’t cover Scotland and Wales or Northern Ireland, but neither will it cover Yorkshire (except for Selby which opted out), Cornwall, the city regions of Manchester and Birmingham (minus Solihull which didn’t join) and of course education is now the responsibility of the Mayor in London and a quango in the North East. So who exactly will be able to vote? And if an English Committee for English laws is OK in the Commons what will happen in the still unreformed House of Lords?  Will it be necessary to stop peers who come from the devolved regions from voting?

Now look at the other end of this farce. I live in England and I have a problem with flooding.  Who will I turn to? In some places it will be the devolved government, in others the Environment Agency in others the Mayor and in some others perhaps a new quango which got its powers on demand. It’s a recipe for obfuscation, confusion and buck passing. No-one will accept responsibility for anything, because no-one, except perhaps a few constitutional experts, will have a clue what’s going on. We already see this on a smaller scale with English local government, which has been consulted to death about structures and where so-called reform has resulted in a total dog’s breakfast with two tier council areas, unitary areas, elected Mayors, elected police commissioners and partial devolution in London. Compare that with Wales and Scotland where the government imposed unitary councils and most people do have a clue about what the council does.

Oh, and by the way, some Lib Dem council group leaders in West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester are content to settle for greater powers for the unelected and unaccountable combined authorities or city regions, which in both cases will mean handing power to the Labour Party. George Osborne on the other hand is offering the powers only if there is a directly elected Mayor in those areas. It’s a disgrace and it’s totally against our principles on democracy and transparency.

I am a fan of consultation, but I also believe that governments are elected on a manifesto and should go on and implement it. You don’t get elected to turn round and say that although we had a manifesto that doesn’t matter because instead of governing we’re going to set up citizens juries and let them decide what we should do. Well you know what? I don’t want to stop immigration, scrap the human rights act, leave the EU or cut the benefits of the low paid. I want to campaign for regional government, get elected and implement it, not faff around. It’s not rocket science.  A vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote for regional government in England, home rule for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and a dramatically slimmed down Parliament in London. Let’s go for it.

So I suggest if you share my contempt for the party’s ludicrous devolution policy then you join me in fighting for a consistent regional policy for England with the same powers as Scotland and hopefully also for Wales and Northern Ireland. Yorkshire has a population and GDP at least the size of Scotland, so along with other regions of England it will have the clout to make home rule work. And, if you live in Yorkshire and the Humber and are going to the regional conference, you’ll have an opportunity to demand home rule for Yorkshire and the Humber as Calderdale has submitted a resolution on it.



* Dr Michael Taylor has been a party member since 1964. He is currently active in the Calderdale Party.

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  • Ok Mick, you’ve convinced me with your argument. We should just stand on a platform of regional devolution (paid for by scrapping the House of Lords and Police Commissioners) and say sod referendums we pay politicians to make decisions if you don’t like it don’t vote for us!

  • You are so thoroughly right! The idea of arbitrary devolution to a mish-mash of city regions and so on is a recipe for disaster. It will lead to complete confusion as you say but worse, it will lead to second-class citizens in those areas which do not get devolution and remain shackled to the centralised state.

    Nick Clegg and others say “one size does not fit all”. Well, we can see, as Michael Taylor has laid out, what a constitutional mess the result of that policy would beCity regions are all well and good if the country were entirely made up of large cities, but it isn’t. There isn’t a single city in the top 20 of size in East Anglia – a region of England with an economy bigger than that of Scotland! That’s clearly unfair and would hamper any independent voice in Anglia and prevent it competing against Scotland or Birmingham.

    No, there can only be one truly rational solution, and that is for there to be regional parliaments throughout England. They must have a lot of devolved power, to the extent that the problem of the West Lothian Question is eliminated as much as possible. I would not suggest separating the legal systems across England so there would still need to be some sort of “English-only solution” for nation-wide issues such as that, but it’s clear that a workable constitution can only be founded on the principle of as near to uniform devolution as is practicable.

  • Rob, I feel there is nothing worse than saying “[xx needs to be paid for by scrapping [y]”. Especially the House of Lords. There are lots of things that could be paid for with extra money but there’s only one House of Lords to scrap.

    No, what we need to do is sell the idea of regional devolution on the basis that it will not increase the number of politicians, who the public do not like. We can only do thise by removing another tier of government and it seems clear that all local authorities in England should be unitary as in Scotland.

    It’s absurd to have Cambridgeshire County Council building our roads whilst South Cambs District Council is the planning authority, so what better opportunity to fix this than by removing the county tier altogether. Devolve many of the powers downwards to district/city/town councils and move some of the wider strategy policy areas up to the regional level alongside significant powers devolved downwards from Westminster.

    Trying to sell regional devolution *without* removing another tier of government in its place would be a non-starter. I hope that is blindingly obvious…

  • The mistake comes in thinking of Devolution as a set of structures when its actually a Political struggle against People who have Power & want to hang on to it. The one thing we should not be doing at this stage is suggesting actual solutions, thats just AV all over again. We should be encouraging any demands for more Power from below & letting people on the ground work out their own solutions.
    The West Lothian question always was a stupid one. All MPs are elected to Westminster, they should all be able to vote on any UK wide policies whether they apply completely to to their patch or not. All the different levels of Government overlap & can only work if they co-operate.

  • I do not see what is so bad about “more politicians.” It means that more ordinary people have a chance to make a difference in their own regions and communities, and there are more opportunities for voters to exercise their democratic powers. It also makes it easier for smaller parties to get a chance to be represented at some level, even if they cannot get an MP elected.

  • Paul Barker, I disagree entirely. How can it be possible for a credible political party with an agenda of reform not to have its own preferred model for a new constitution? How can you say the current system is rubbish and not be able to put to the electorate a comprehensive and worked-out policy for what might replace it? As someone wrote on the members’ forum here on this same topic, “it’s like saying you’re against child poverty but not having any policies which you believe are a means to fight it”.

    By the way, we didn’t suggest AV. The Liberal Democrats have adopted STV as their peferred electoral system. The AV referendum was a half-baked compromise, a trap set for Lib Dems by the Conservative – a referendum on something the Lib Dems didn’t really want and one they were bound to lose anyway.

  • An excellent article.

    “Variable geometry”, as this crazy approach has been called in the EU, is a guaranteed recipe for failure. Has no-one in Lib Dem Towers heard of the KISS principle?

    The English regions are quite big enough for proper devolution of substantial powers. Among the obvious ones, London is much bigger than Scotland and some others like Yorkshire are slightly bigger. I would favour including some much smaller units where history and/or geography so dictated – Cornwall being the obvious example. What should be avoided at all costs is tidy-minded bureaucrats wishing to make all devolved regions much the same. The whole point to devolution is to enable the natural diversity of places and history to be accommodated.

    Quite which powers is a matter of debate and views will in any case change over time and in the light of experience so a good model of devolution will provide a mechanism for moving specific powers up or down the devolutionary ladder as circumstances and politics dictate.

    Whatever their boundaries regions MUST have a media that reports their life – political, sporting, business and so on or their politicians and bureaucrats will have no scrutiny. That’s a powerful part of what’s wrong with PCCs in this country and the multiplicity of minor elected offices in the USA. BBC regions and the government’s standard statistical regions will need to adjust to report a devolved reality.

    Finally, devolution should NOT be “paid for” by giving up something else. It is about moving functions and the staff that do them, not about recruiting more staff. Given how horribly inefficient our grotesquely over-centralised system is at present there should to be massive savings to be made.

  • if you don’t like it don’t vote for us

    That’s okay, nobody’s going to.

  • Yorkshire Guidon 20th Oct '14 - 4:36pm

    Good piece. You should send something along these lines to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee inquiry into ‘the Future of devolution after the referendum’. Deadline for written submissions is Thursday 23 October 2014

  • Michael, If you don’t tell people where the money is going to come from then the big critique of regional devolution will be the cost and many many voters vote with their pockets.

    Virtually nobody in the Lib Dems are fans of Police commissioners and the House of Lords, most believe that they, at best, must reformed. Having Regional Assemblies (preferably) means you have to remove many of the functions from these organisations and therefore it is correct that they cease to exist.

    I’m not saying we don’t sell the really good points of regional devolution (increased accountability, local decision making, etc) but the cost argument is a vital one and needs a through response and getting rid of unelected/ crazy bodies seems an eminantly plausible way to go.

  • Rob, I said in my earlier posting that I believe regional assemblies should be accompanied by the abolition of the county tier of government because we do not need excessive tiers. That would represent a cost saving: in a region such as Eastern England with six counties (if based on the current EU region) that would mean the abolition of 300 county councillors to be replaced by a parliament of around 125 members perhaps the same size as the Scottish Parliament. The district and city authorities would be unitary. There would be no net increase or decrease in bureaucracy, hopefully, but an overall reduction in the number of elected politicians.

    The House of Lords is our national second chamber. It is simply an odd choice to discuss the abolition of that as the “price” to pay for devolution. You need to put the case for a unicameral parliament. I’ll put the case for my proposal, which is that more power should be localised to unitary authorities whilst more Westminster powers should be devolved to regional bodies.

    As for whether the Lords should be abolished as a result of greater devolution, I would disagree. Both the Commons and the Lords should be greatly reduced in size if there is devolution throughout the UK, but that does not necessarily mean that it is best to move from a two-chamber parliament to a single chamber.

  • James Baker 20th Oct '14 - 9:45pm

    Great article Mick, I hope people are listening! I’m totally against handing these new City Regions and Combined authorities more powers when they are not directly elected by the people.

  • *chairly seal of approval for this post*

  • Abolition of the HoL does not necessarily imply a unicameral parliament. The problem is that the HoC does not seem to want an elected second chamber with the mandate and authority that would imply.

  • Maria Pretzler 21st Oct '14 - 1:58am

    Good to see another post on this – I have in the past written about the problems with this completely unworkable policy.

    If they couldn’t see the problem of a kind of multiplied West Lothian question when they came up with this policy, I really wonder why any of these people sat on a LibDem political reform policy group in the first place – but even they ought to see now that ‘devolution on demand’ can’t be the right solution.

  • David-1 20th Oct ’14 – 1:14pm
    “I do not see what is so bad about “more politicians.” It means that more ordinary people have a chance to make a difference in their own regions and communities…….”

    Absolutely right. In France more than one in three people have at some time served as an elected representative at some level. I cannot remember the equivalent number for England, but it is tiny in comparison.

    The chorus that we must not have “more politicians” comes from groups such as The Tax Dodgers’ Alliance and other front organisations for right wing Conservativism and free market extremists.

    I know that mentioning France is an invitation to some numbskull or other to wade in with an ill-informed comment, but what the heck!

  • Richard Sangster 21st Oct '14 - 8:22am

    We already have a minor mis-mash in that in some areas we have county councils, whilst in other areas we only have unitary authorities. In the latter case, there are three problems, firstly there is too great a gap, in terms of size, between the smaller unitary authorities and central government, these smaller unitary authorities may not have the necessary range of expertise and finally, matters, that affect more than one unitary authority, escape electoral scrutiny.

    Whereas, in the past, with less mobility , county councils may have sufficed to deal with such matters, people are now commuting over ever increasing distances and are generally more mobile, larger regional authorities are now needed to replace county councils

  • Mick Taylor 21st Oct '14 - 9:57am

    The new regional authorities would have tax raising powers with a corresponding reduction in central taxation. Eventually when devolution is complete we can drastically cut the size and functions of the UK Parliament and hence it’s tax call. Obviously it would remain important, dealing with UK wide legislation, foreign policy, defence, overall economic management, the EU and importantly a revenue equalisation scheme to make sure that the richer regions continue to assist poorer ones – as happens now under the Barnett formula.

  • Arthur Snell 21st Oct '14 - 11:04am

    Reading this gave me a “thank goodness I’m not alone” moment. I believe strongly in greater devolution but don’t see how it could work with different powers at different levels. Opposing a la carte devolution isn’t illiberal, since constitutional structures need stability if they are to gain trust. No coincidence that most countries make it hard to change electoral systems and regional powers. Only in the UK would you find party leaders offering significant new powers in a panic during a referendum campaign.

    One of the tensions throughout the referendum was the sense that the argument taking place in Scotland was equally important to the rest of the Union, whose views were ignored. That must show the risks of a different powers all over the place. Surely better to have a sensible structure that people understand, using units of similar scale to Scotland all having largely the same powers. It could also replace existing county/UA administration which would remove bureaucracy and lessen “postcode lotteries” (which personally I’m not too worried about but which is a ready-made Daily Mail attack).

  • In France more than one in three people have at some time served as an elected representative at some level. I cannot remember the equivalent number for England, but it is tiny in comparison.

    Maybe most English people don’t want to be elected representatives?

  • Julian Tisi 21st Oct '14 - 1:04pm

    A very good article and I think this exposes very well the total dogs breakfast policy we have on devolution, what with our local solutions to be decided locally (translation: the dominant party locally will decide what’s in their best interests).

    If we’re to sell devolution – any devolution – we need to show that it will make things clearer and better. I remain to be convinced but my own preferred solution would be: 1) Regional governments broadly at the size of the Euro constituencies (London, Scotland and Wales already have their own devolved assemblies), 2) Then ONE layer more of local government for everyone. These could be cities, counties, boroughs or whatever, but the general presumption should be that we remove further layers to make it simpler, clearer and less costly.

  • Julian Tisi, spot on! What you said mirrors my view: regional assemblies and then one lower layer of government. Generally, it ought to work with unitary authorities (e,g, the abolition here of Cambridgeshire County Council and the amalgamation of South Cambs and Cambridge City into one authority, plus a couple more units for the other parts of Cambridgeshire, and so on up and down the country). Naturally, some of the city authorities such as Birmingham would be substantially larger than an authority in Norfolk, say, but rightly so. What really matters is that any regional assemblies cover large enough populations to make their costs worthwhile and to ensure that their tax-raising powers have sufficient clout in terms of investment in infrastructure, etc.

    What it is also important to recognise is that *wherever* you draw a boundary it will be in the wrong place for *someone*. It is inevitable. There is no perfect solution. Therefore there really can’t be any rational reason why the current regions as defined for European elections are any worse a division of England than any other setup you might care to devise. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up worrying about it – just get on with it.

  • Chris Burden 21st Oct '14 - 6:45pm

    Before anything else, we need a Constitutional Convention one of whose tasks would be to produce a Written and Codified Constitution, accessible and comprehensible to all, more or less.
    While we DO have a written constitution already, it is scattered among around 100 acts of parliament, apparently.

  • No Chris

    If we wait for a written constitution we’ll lose the momentum for devolution. A written constitution will take a long time to write, whereas a devolution bill could be done very quickly – after all we’ve already devolved power to Scotland and Wales so models already exists and Alisdair Carmichael is steering through further devolution.

    And yes, we will need unitary local government with the retention and strengthening of Town and Parish councils too. We can devolve power to deal with that to the new regional parliaments though we might like to write STV into the legislation (and eventually into the constitution!)

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