Councils must work together to identify an appropriate model of devolution for their area, says LGC’s editor
It is difficult to predict how the Scottish referendum’s impact on Britain’s constitution will be interpreted in the decades to come.
The result could be viewed as a temporary reprieve for the anachronistic centralised UK before the inevitable happens. Alternatively, it could be seen as the moment the penny dropped and a consensus was born that power needs to be spread far and wide in order for local areas to escape their Whitehall straitjacket.
The initial indications are inconclusive. While it may be unjustifiable that Scottish MPs get to vote on English affairs when their English counterparts get no influence over Scotland, David Cameron’s proposed England-only parliamentary voting is no solution to the disconnect from power felt by most people. We will leave aside for now the scope for constitutional crisis arising from an English parliament, if for instance Labour had a Commons majority but could only drive through legislation on foreign affairs and immigration.
England – whose inhabitants make up 84% of the UK’s population – is too large an area to devolve to. A Commons in which only English MPs sit is as remote to the inhabitants of Berwick, Bolsover and Bournemouth as the current arrangement.
The government has been more enthusiastic about the scope for the devolution of power to urban combined authorities. But the prime minister’s promise of “wider civic engagement about how to improve governance”, delivered in a statement largely dwelling on parliamentary change, hardly inspires confidence that localism is at the centre of his vision.
Easily the most heartening response to the Scottish referendum result has been the surge of enthusiasm for additional responsibility from councils. New proposals are emerging in areas such as Birmingham, Newcastle, and West and South Yorkshire.
Although County Councils Network members have bid for additional responsibility under the underlying theme of “one place, one budget”, there is a gulf in optimism between urban and shire areas. The combined authority model – often based on travel-to-work areas – has so far shown itself to be more readily introduced in urban city regions. Many counties and districts fear they could be sidelined.
Many questions arise. Are counties the right unit to devolve to? While Cornwall may have a strong identity and its constituent areas may largely share a coherent set of characteristics, is this equally true of Lancashire or Warwickshire?
Are districts too small to devolve to? Do combined authorities in shire areas have a sufficiently coherent identity to enthuse the public? Giving power to the current unwieldy South East Local Enterprise Partnership area, stretching from Eastbourne to Uttlesford, hardly constitutes the sort of local empowerment that overcomes a perception of remoteness from power.
This is a time of opportunity in which councils so far have largely worked together in search of an appropriate model of devolution for their area. This spirit of co-operation must be retained. There must be no regression to the sort of tribal battles seen before when lines on maps have been redrawn or power structures redesigned.