As Scotland decides whether or not to stay in the United Kingdom, there is yet another reason why independence for local government is important.
Regardless of the result of the referendum, devolution is back on the table for serious discussion by all parties. But devolution can’t just be for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: what’s good enough for them is good enough for England too. Devolution must be a matter of principle for all our nations, not an expedient or bribe to remain part of the union.
The political and constitutional reform select committee, which I chair, published a report early last year entitled Prospects for Codifying the Relationship between Central and Local Government. We explored the ways in which local government could be the vehicle for devolution in England, freed from its chains in Whitehall, giving local people both the political and financial power to control their own affairs.
We received an enormous response to our consultation from localities around the country, the vast majority in favour of being responsible for their own affairs.
Following this report I produced the Local Government Independence Bill which was launched in July, just before the House rose for its summer recess.
The bill was launched with a mighty cross-party alliance, including the mayor of London Boris Johnson, and the leader of Core Cities Jon Collins (Lab). Its purpose is to help all three parties develop their ideas on localism ready for manifestos and the general election, which is in less than 250 days.
The bill’s contents are straightforward. It is worked out in full technical detail with the help of QCs and parliamentary drafts people. It declares local and central government separate and independent. It also codifies local authorities’ duties, separates their finances and triple locks the provisions so they are difficult for central government to ever repeal easily.
This would create a formal constitutional status for local government equal to that of central government, and independent from Whitehall.
In the short term, local government independence could be enshrined by a simple amendment to the 1911 Parliament Act. However in the long term it would need to be guaranteed in a written constitution; another important step in the UK’s journey towards a true democracy.
More political powers for local government will mean nothing without financial independence. Local government should not be dependent on the will of its masters in Whitehall, begging for scraps. We need a radical new settlement with HMRC sending half the national income tax take back, via the Department for Communities & Local Government and properly equalised as now, to locally elected councils.
They would then be free to raise the rest of their income however they and their electorates decided, and spend this money in the way most appropriate for their locality.
No longer having the crutch of central government will be both frightening and exciting for our localities. They will be constitutionally responsible to their electorate. There will no longer be anyone else to blame.
However, with my many years of experience with local government I know that councils will thrive with new powers and freedom. Their devoted service to their localities make them the best people to control their own spending and the local services their area needs.
Give powers back to the localities and political apathy would melt away, especially on a local level. Turnout at local elections will soar as people will want to become more engaged in their communities, knowing that they will be able to make a true difference to the area that they live in.
Real powers and freedom from central government, will mean it really matters who people vote for locally again. With turnout for local elections at an unacceptable low, local independence will give England the kick-start it needs to engage communities.
While independence may appear a radical idea, independent local government is commonplace in almost every other western democracy. We are shackled to our past; England is the last country in the empire and Whitehall does not want to give up its control.
Whoever wins the general election in 2015 must take the necessary steps to end the over-centralisation of England. It is time that all three parties stood up and started to take notice of the important issue at hand.
Local government must be allowed to flourish and grow, empowering local people with local decisions. We must liberate our residents, their talents and their local economic energy and creativity from the dead hand of Whitehall.
Whatever the decision made by Scotland, the penny must finally drop for those in Whitehall that we cannot continue as normal anymore.
Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North