Why I tried to amend devolution policy -and how I was misrepresented

At Autumn Conference I moved an amendment to F8 “Power to People and Communities”. Our amendment, concentrating solely on English regional devolution was opposed not by a rebuttal of its text and my speech but, sadly, by means of mischaracterisation and misrepresentation of what was written and said.

Since attending the Agenda 2020 session at Autumn Conference 2015 and then the East of England Regional Conference (which near-unanimously passed my motion “Fair Devolution for the East of England”) I have proposed additional criteria to the policy of “devolution on demand” – three little words encapsulating a seemingly straightforward and liberal approach but in fact opening a can of worms.

Quoting from my speech: “Civil Servants drawing lines on the map in dark rooms in Whitehall is a dreadful prospect. An entirely locally-led permissive solution, without additional qualification, is equally flawed because it implies self-selective, first-come-first-served devolution. Those first off the blocks will form regions within no framework and with no obligation to consider the ability of other neighboring districts to form viable regions themselves. We can have neither a top-down imposed solution nor an unmanaged, unfettered free-for-all. This is all about process, not about lines on the map. There must be a clear direction and goals: no areas disenfranchised or disadvantaged by the prior actions of others”.

The text of the amendment states: “…establish a process by which a regional tier…may be designed and implemented, on the basis that it should be a fully-inclusive process combining top-down oversight and locally-driven design…”

During the debate, the accusation was levied that “the amendment calls for a top-down style of devolution. People do not like top-down. They like bottom-up”.  Several party members have since approached me to express surprise at the mischaracterisation of my words.

Some people appear to have construed anything not 100% locally-driven as a “top-down imposed solution” and not to have understood a proposal which relies on “locally-driven designs” but which ensures that through moderation and arbitration, all corners of England end up with viable regions. It is not difficult to imagine parts of England marooned and left behind in gaps in the devolution map created by the unconstrained prior formation of other regions; small areas lacking geographic logic or sufficient economic mass to take advantage of devolved powers. Do I need to provide a hypothetical example to illustrate the possible consequences of these prejudicial anomalies?

Cllr Bridget Smith, leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, understands the problems of the hotchpotch of current devolution and dreadful mayoral-led Combined Authorities. After her various criticisms, she supported the amendment, saying to Conference “Our devolution policies should not just be a different flavour of ‘make it up as we go along’. They should ensure a properly designed framework which works with locally-led ideas”.  Bridget wants neither a top-down imposed solution nor an unmanaged free-for-all, the latter being what Devolution on Demand is with no qualifying criteria whatsoever. My speech and text were crystal clear in rejecting the two extremes and suggesting that a process guaranteeing everyone a fair slice of the devolution cake must exist within a framework (perhaps overseen by the Boundary Commission or another suitable body). This is not a “top-down” solution. Far from it. I am left bewildered by the extent to which this was misrepresented to Conference.

* I am an exec member of South Cambs local party and an English Council rep for the East of England

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15 Comments

  • Julian Tisi 20th Sep '18 - 9:27am

    Unfortunately I couldn’t get to conference this year but what you say has considerable merit and I suspect I would have voted for it. Devolution is a wonderful principle but we seem to be ignoring all other considerations to promote devolution. I can’t say I’m remotely a fan of “devolution on demand” as it leads to all sorts of inefficiencies and anomalies. More to the point, these authorities are not properly held to account if the average voter doesn’t understand who is responsible for what.

  • John Marriott 20th Sep '18 - 10:40am

    If you wait for ‘Devolution on demand”, hell will have frozen over first. You can pass as many motions as you like. The ONLY way to get REAL Devolution in England (when the job is three quarters done in NI, Wales and Scotland) is to start with local government and then elect a government in Westminster committed to a Federal UK. The trouble at the moment is that there is only one show in town at the moment and it begins with ‘B’.

  • Well, I would disagree with the suggestion that you *have* to have a full federalist policy in order to get some substantial devolution within England. I would, however, ultimately want to see regions of England as federal units on a par with Scotland, Wales and NI. The Yorks&Humber Lib Dems passed a motion calling for a Yorks Parliament with powers similar to those of the Scottish Parliament back in 2014. One can create those regions before turning the country into a federal union, and I suspect it would be easier to do the latter once the appropriate regions have been created by one means or another.

  • Julian, thank you. The question of who is accountable for what is specific to what powers are devolved to the regions which is not necessarily linked to the discussion of how those regions come into being and what the boundaries are, but will have some correlation. I never suggested that a “one size fits all” model should be applied, despite Wera Hobhouse MP, who moved the motion but opposed my amendment, claiming the amendment did. I think symmetrical devolution should be a goal where practical but with exceptions where necessary and desirable. For example, if England forms regions all of which are equal or greater than Wales in population but Cornwall wants to be a separate region then there are issues as to whether the same powers can be devolved to Cornwall as to Yorkshire. But, as I said in my Conference speech, if every single region of England can select different powers from a “menu”, as Paper 130 suggests, then there will be a whole host of “West Lothian Questions” not just between Scotland and England but all throughout England. It would be pretty messy if taken to the extreme. Who would understand whether their MP or their regional government were responsible and accountable for this?

    The problem is that once one suggests a solution which isn’t an entire free-for-all, one is accused of either “one-size-fits-all-ism” or “top-down-ism”. I think these two dogmatic mantras impose a stultifying straitjacket on ourdevolution thinking. The reality must be that our constitutional progress to greater devolution will need to be sorted out with a sophisticated approach which requires some oversight (where oversight means what the dictionary says it means: “regulatory supervision”, not a top-down imposed solution). Alongside a primarily locall-led source of ideas and designs. Exactly as I said to Conference.

  • David Lloyd 20th Sep '18 - 6:03pm

    English regions on a par with Scotland, Wales, NI? To me that represent a massive step backwards for the union. It would be like germany declaring it should have 3 votes compared to latvia in the EU because Bavaria is bigger, Berlin has a greater population and Germany has greater wealth. Westminster primarily has an English accent already and you’re arguing that this should be extended by saying Yorkshire is equal to a Celtic nation. Yorkshire is a fine place but is not a country. If English devolution cannot respect that then it shouldn’t happen at this time.

  • David, Germany has more MEPs in the EU because it is substantially bigger. If Yorkshire is exactly the same size as Scotland (which it nearly is) then it will have exactly the same number of MPs in Westminster. However, for constitutional changes and various treaties, the voting arrangements in the EU are not simply dependent on nation size. Within the UK (as on federal countries such as the USA) there would be particular arrangements for supermajorities for constitutional votes, etc.

    Furthermore, when I said “on a par” I was speaking purely in terms of the devolved powers each would have (education, fisheries, whatever) . This is NOT the same as what influence Yorkshire and Scotland have on constitutional changes to the UK which are the remit of the UK Parliament.

    Scotland becomes no less a nation because a Yorkshire or Wessex Parliament has the same devolved powers within the UK. What’s more, nobody would suggest that the legal and justice systems should be devolved to English regions in order to achieve “perfect symmetry”. There will, in a minimal sense, remain the need for an all-England (or England and Wales) legislative mechanism to deal with this even if for 90% of legislative powers, the regions are on a par with Scotland. So, in fact, there will likely always be some difference between the home nations and we won’t arguing over notions of exceptionalism, I hope.

  • Your explanation is correct. England should be subdivided into smaller regions with equivalent representation in an upper chamber that reflects population sizes. Tge Scottish Parliament gets on with the day to day business that necessitates prompt action. One can’t get that without trying so lease advise.

  • Galen, wasn’t sure which points you were referring to… are you suggesting an upper chamber for the purpose of legislating *only* for those English things which are devolved to the Scottish Parliament but which are not devolved to the proposed English regions (justice and a few other things)?

    And as a Scot, are you happy to accept that Scotland is not diminished as a nation and identity by Yorkshire having a Parliament as powerful as the Scottish Parliament, and that England is not diminished as a country by means of not having a similar parliament but instead being regionalised for the purpose of a sensible structure of governance?

  • Philip Knowles 21st Sep '18 - 9:26am

    As I’ve said previosly on other topics about devolution, the key is getting regions sufficiently large enough (or regionally distinct) to attract sufficient support and funding to make a real difference. Transport and the NHS are two areas in particular where devolved powers coud make a real difference.
    I live in rural North Yorkshire and no one wants us to be part of a devolution process because of the perception that we are ‘expensive’ – despite the reality that we are net exporters of tax. A totally bottom down approach would probably leave us as orphans.
    However, even if the whole of Yorkshire were devolved in one it wouldn’t be large enough to deal with things like the transpennine railway. The timetable issue in May (partially caused by Whitehall cancelling a long promised electrification scheme) shows that the north as a whole needs to have the ability to make its own decisions about what affects the people who live up here.
    Transport for the North has little power or money but does provide a potential blueprint for a devolved region. It has 16M people so gives it clout. It is regionally distinct. It also suffers from chronic underinvestment from Whitehall. A Barnet formula woud redress that.
    However, there would need to be provisos to ensure that everything didn’t go to the ‘usual suspects’. It would also require reform of the lower tiers of local government perhaps removing the County Council or District Council layer in non-unitary authorities.
    One thing is sure, the current system where Londoners per capita spend on transport is over 10 times that of North Yorkshire cannot be allowed to continue. Devolution is the only way to ensure a fair playing field.
    As an aside, I turned 60 in May.
    If I lived in Scotland – free bus pass
    If I lived in Wales – free bus pass
    If I lived in Northern Ireland – free bus pass
    If I lived in LONDON- free bus pass
    So much for a United Kingdom.

  • Philip, it’s interesting that you refer to North Yorks and say “nobody would want us”. I believe that the opposite may have been true in the short-lived suggestion for a Cambs & Suffolk & Norfolk region. I believe there was a view from some in rural Norfolk that wealthy Cambridge and South Cambs would get all the money and attention. These petty squabbles and misconceptions are pathetic. We need better and more responsive structures of govt and, either way, rural districts are going to be better off as part of a region than as part of a centralised state. Norfolk would have far more of a say in things within a three-county region than within the Westminster Parliament.

    Your point about funding transpenine links (I grew up in Sheffield and went to uni in Manchester, by the way, and my route was the Snake Pass) is good, but of course such a railway line would have to be funded by several regions, not just Yorks? And some people have suggested a northern super-region as an option: Yorks,NW and NE.

    There are less expensive things than rail that I think would be fundable by regions. For example, and eastern region might be able to fund upgrades to the A14 without hindrance from an intransigent central govt which, a few years ago, suggested a toll road with private investment. This caused an outrage. “A tax on Suffolk”.

    Yes to reforming lower tiers of govt under regionalisation. I would prefer unitaries so that there are not a greater number of tiers of govt. Perhaps other areas might have different ideas and could have some freedom to choose.

    As a resident of South Cambs, I want a unitary for Cambridge plus South Cambs, and I want a region of between three and six counties with substantial tax raising powers moved downwards from Westminster. And I want the region to work as a region, not just a means for City Deals to cream off the best bits, as those parts of Suffolk and Norfolk along way from burgeoning Cambridge are just as important as we are.

  • Galen Milne 21st Sep '18 - 7:31pm

    Hi again. Defence and foreign affairs are not devolved so that’s what a single upper chamber should take care of and the devolved regions the domestic affairs that can be peculiar to local areas. It’s referred to as Localism in Ming Campbell’s update to the Steel Commsion report of years ago about Scottish devolution( or Home Rule as Liberals called it) inside a Federal UK.
    Regards
    Galen
    Previous tweaked – Your explanation is correct. England should be subdivided into smaller regions with equivalent representation in an upper chamber that reflects population sizes. The Scottish Parliament gets on with the day to day business that necessitates prompt action. One can’t get that without trying so please advise if that would tick boxes in Englandshire?

  • Peter Hirst 22nd Sep '18 - 3:57pm

    It’s a tricky issue. Presumably those areas without any devolution would remain as they are at present and that might suit some. Any decision should be agreed by a referendum of all those involved and that might include those not included. Turnouts and thresholds should also be considered.

  • It might suit some, although that’s a good recipe for a mess if 90% of England is substantially devolved. Who exactly is going to legislate and administer the undevovled areas? A group of 50MPs with the other 610 excluded (West Lothian Question and all that…) and Whitehall civil servants? Do you think such a scenario would last long? I suspect the people concerned would soon have second thoughts.

  • Hello from Scotland.

    I think this would simply turn Scotland ( and Wales and NI) into a region of the UK in a response to the upsurge in British nationalism before and after the EU referendum vote. There is already a lot of disquiet about concerted efforts to minimise the branding of Scottish foods and other products as British, the removal of powers from Holyrood as a result of Brexit and so on. This would simply be seen as trying to diminish Scotland as a country and nation.

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