Power for people and communities

I am very pleased to be presenting the policy paper Power for People and Communities at Conference, having chaired the group that developed the paper.

The proposals set out a strong agenda for devolution and localism within England. We are arguing for greater financial autonomy for local authorities, STV in local elections, making it easier to establish Town or Community Councils in urban areas, strengthening the powers of local government over issues from education to health to planning, and also reforming the Social Value Act to encourage the use of public or not-for-profit providers when commissioning local services.

Judging by the amendments submitted, a focus of the debate will be on devolution within England. The paper develops and strengthens existing policy on this since the last major policy debate in 2014. We set out a clear ambition to achieve a comprehensive devolved tier within England, while recognising that the appetite for devolution is different in different areas and we need to take people with us.

Our approach is to enact permissive legislation to empower groups of local authorities to come together to establish devolved governance in their areas. We will proceed by consensus as far as possible, but will not allow one local authority to veto a coherent proposal.

The geographical makeup of the devolved authorities should reflect local opinion. The decision should reflect local views, traditional boundaries and community identification as well as economic units, current council boundaries and travel-to-work areas. In some areas this could be city regions, in others sub-regions or a whole region as one unit. 

The devolved bodies will be able to choose from a menu of powers, including legislative powers over devolved functions. If they do not feel able to take the full range of powers at first, there will be the opportunity to take greater powers over time; this will not be a one-off take-it-or-leave-it option. 

Devolution must be democratic, and all authorities must have a democratically-elected assembly.  Devolution should be downwards from Central Government, not taking decisions or responsibilities away from local government.

When a full developed tier is established, as part of our long-term aim of creating a written constitution for the UK, the role and powers of the devolved tier should be entrenched so that a future central government cannot simply abolish them.

There is an amendment which calls for us to reject these proposals and conduct further consultations with the English regional parties to achieve a ‘preferred model’ for regional devolution. I would counsel against this. Firstly it will lead to delay in establishing a policy, and there is no guarantee that there is a single model that will attract general support. Secondly, given the variation of in different parts of England it is inevitable that we have to accept some degree of asymmetrical devolution for the foreseeable future. Thirdly, the one thing that will definitely put people off from the devolution agenda is the idea that there is some predetermined one-size-fits-all scheme being imposed upon them.

I look forward to debating the issues with you in Brighton.

* Tim Pickstone is Chief Executive of ALDC (the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors) and is National Spokesperson on Grassroots Campaigning

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  • John Marriott 14th Sep '18 - 8:07pm

    @Tim Pickstone
    If you wait for the majority of people to back Devolution, you will wait for ever. You are right in acknowledging that this is specifically an English problem.

    So it’s time to grasp the nettle, ignore the opposition from vested interests as the current crisis in Local Government demands solutions now, which may be seen to be trampling over these vested interests. That means scrapping the remaining County and District Councils and replacing them with Unitary Authorities, with Parish/Town/Community Councils below them. That will bring England into line with Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Then comes the icing on the cake. We need to establish Regional Government in England and transform the Westminster Parliament into a Federal Parliament forbtye United Kingdom.

  • As mover of the first amendment I will be explaining why devolution on demand, without any further qualification, is as bad as a top-down imposed solution. DoD embodies first come first served devolution, areas coming together “permissively” within no framework, no managed direction. Paper 130 adds nothing to Paper 117, instead offering only 270 words on regional devolution. It doesn’t even mention the word Federal at all, unlike pp117 in 2014. As for a “menu of powers”, what this describes is a constitutional mess – a multitude of “West Lothian Questions” thoughout England.

    This party sadly has no coherent model for a new UK and just expects a tidy result to drop out of the end of free-for-all. We call for a Constitutional Convention but have no model constitution of our own to put to that Convention.

    The Federal Party has completely ignored policy motions passed by NW, East, and Yorks&Humber. There is no engagement and no rational process defined for directing the development of a regional tier. This requires a *combination* of locally-led ideas and top-down oversight. “Devolution on demand” appears a Liberal construct but the party has been blind to its consequences.

  • Paper 130 has other flaws too. It is incoherent in its principles. It clearly states that Police and Crime Commissioners should be abolished. Yet, although it heavily criticises the Mayoral model, it goes on to suggest that Mayors should remain “an optional addition to an elected assembly”.

    Sorry, but either we believe that all singular elected officials (unrepresentative, insufficiently accountable, etc) should be abolished, or we believe they should all exist, or we believe that they should always be optional (the liberal choice?). To suggest that PCCs must be abolished but in the same breath as criticising Mayors say they can be optional, is bizarre.

  • John Marriott,

    I think financial pressure is already driving the scrapping of the remaining County and District Councils and replacing them with Unitary Authorities. It has happened in Cornwall and Wiltshire and I understand Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire are both looking closely at going down this route as well.

  • Perhaps I should expand on my criticism of permissive devolution on demand as I can’t cover it all in the four minutes assigned to me in the debate. It is extremely easy to concoct an example in which various groups of districts or counties ask to form regions which, while seeming good in isolation, are an obstruction to the overall target of sensible regions throughout England. Without any sort of framework to guide decisions, those regions will form without any consideration of how that affects the viability of other neighbouring districts to form regions. If a regional tier is to cover all of England then it must ensure that every district and county is given an equal opportunity to form an appropriate region with whichever neighbours makes the most sense. This requires far more than a “make it up as we go along” approach which is essentially the basis of a permissive system. The party deserves to be criticised for failing to look beyond the catchphrase of devolution on demand, failing to qualify it in any way, failing to consider several obvious consequences.

  • It’s also interesting to note how Paper 130 appears to be unnecessarily prescriptive. Perhaps this is entirety unintentional, but here is the first bullet point of Section 2.3.2:

    “The geographic makeup of the devolved authorities should reflect local opinion. The decision should reflect local views, traditional boundaries and community identification as well as economic units, current council boundaries and travel-to-work areas”.

    Well, no. It should NOT reflect traditional boundaries” and “current council boundaries” UNLESS that is what “local views” actually request.

    The paper appears to have dictated that current authority boundaries must form the basis of any solution. But the people may decide those boundaries are no longer appropriate. The same goes for traditional boundaries. Our counties may be 1000 years old and people may prefer to keep those identities intact. But also, they may not.

    The language, the construct of that first point of 2.3.2 is ambiguous. Do we really have to reflect *any* existing boundaries and be so constrained?

    Much better just to say “reflect local opinion and identity” and actually let the people decide whether those correspond to any existing boundaries whether ancient or relatively modern.

  • @john Marriott.
    Where I live we have a unitary council with a lower tier of town/parishes. While many of you will be preparing for council elections in the spring we have no elections of any kind until 2021. Is that democracy ?
    Many of the local town council wards and parishes have never had a contested election and numbers are made up by co-opted members chosen by the existing councillors. Is that democracy ?
    Not saying a unitary system couldn’t work, but not unreformed.

  • John Marriott 15th Sep '18 - 10:19am

    @Joe B
    You could also add Hereford & Worcester, Bedford, Northumberland, City of Nottingham, City of Leicester etc., plus some of the ones created following the Banham Review of the early 1990s, like North and North East Lincolnshire, Hartlepool. After all, that was what the Redcliffe Maud review of the late 1960s advocated.
    @Chris Cory
    You are quite right. No local elections before 2021 is NOT democracy. Mind you, having District elections by thirds EVERY year, with the fourth year for County Council Elections, as happens in placing like Lincoln is a bit like ‘overkill’, in my opinion. So, in your case, why have ‘all in elections? Why not stagger them by splitting the Unitary and Parish Town Elections over a four year cycle, so elections could take every two years? Surely, that’s enough ‘democracy’ for most people.

    As regards Elections at the lower tier, if you give this tier real power, you might just persuade a few more people to stand. My take on this is that nobody should just be a ‘shoo-in’. Every potential candidate, even for a casual vacancy, should be required to enter papers, which would require a proposer and seconder from the electors in the Ward which they wanted to represent. In the event of only one person applying, that person would automatically ‘win’, which would look better than some sitting councillor’s mate just being voted on by the council. If nobody puts their papers in then there will have to be a cooption.

  • What does this paper say that is substantially different from it’s predecessor. It sounds very similar to both that and every other Lib Dem local government policy paper

  • Tim, why have you repeatedly misrepresented amendment 1? My speech clearly stated “We can have neither a top down imposed solution nor an unfettered free for all?”

  • @john Marriott

    I think we are in agreement. It’s not the principle but the way these councils work in practice which needs tweaking. I was a little bemused that the policy paper seemed to make no real mention of a need to reform the first tier of councils. They should have asked us, John.

  • nvelope2003 15th Sep '18 - 4:35pm

    Somerset are also looking to create a unitary authority and consultations have begun because the Conservative County Council is almost bankrupt after failing to raise council tax for 7 years as they feared they would not retain control.

    Some functions have been devolved to the District councils because they are not subject to such tight controls by central government. Taunton Deane DC which is merging with West Somerset DC is taking over the Taunton park and ride scheme.
    However, is it really feasible to devolve powers to parish and town councils as they might not have the facilities or experienced staff to carry out extra functions and if they did it might not be the most efficient or economic way to do so. Some of the larger towns like Taunton, Yeovil, Frome or Bridgwater might be able to do more but the smaller ones or villages would have to form joint boards etc (probably with the bigger towns) thus recreating the District Councils.

  • John Marriott 15th Sep '18 - 8:21pm

    There are, from my experience, three kinds of Parish Council: the Proactive, the Reactive and the Inactive. Clearly, not all local councils would be forced to take on more powers. Some would be perfectly capable of doing more, and would satisfy the Lib Dem desire for ‘Devolution to the most local point’. Others, as you say, would need to seek other solutions if they wished to go down this road. Flexibility is the name of the game.

    A great deal will depend on whether or not Great Britain goes down the Federal route. As far as England is concerned, Regional Governments/Assemblies rather than an English Parliament would be my answer. As to what powers the various tiers in England below a UK Federal Government have, these could be the subject of a constitutional conversation that should involve us all.

  • David Lloyd 19th Sep '18 - 7:09pm

    I have made the point before but it is very much anti-union to devolve powers to English regions so that they are equal to Celtic nations. This is not some Great British Bake off style divy up where size of regions matter but historical ties between four nations, and where England/London/Westminster has had too great a say already. Imagine if you will Germany arguing that it should have 3x the power in the EU than a smaller nation because Bavaria, Berlin and Germany as a whole is a larger/more populated area. Devlotion is good but respect should be shown unless the lib Dems want to follow in the Tory/UKIP model of thinking.

  • Peter Hirst 20th Sep '18 - 1:45pm

    The challenge is to get the right balance between involving people and making the process easy to understand and fair.

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