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Devolution must bring greater equality

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It is hard to believe now that for a few months, four years ago, localism and the Big Society were the coalition government’s key notes.

In Queen’s Park, north Westminster, we thought our campaign to establish London’s first civil parish was in tune: a well-organised neighbourhood, a strong network of volunteers. When I interviewed decentralisation minister Greg Clark in 2010, he even spoke of a “great revival” of parish politics.

In the event, our scheme was reviewed twice before being approved by a reluctant-seeming local authority and a change to the benefits system halved our income.

Still, we’re here, and now, thanks to Scotland, devolution is back.

“I want cities and counties, towns and districts, parishes and neighbourhoods to make more decisions,” shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn told the Labour party conference last week. The Conservatives want English votes for English laws. London mayor Boris Johnson wants the city’s property taxes.  

Some, though, are not convinced that pushing power down and out is the answer.

“How much Devo Max would you give bad councils?” asked the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, holding up the poor people of Thanet, neglected by the Conservatives who run Kent, as a warning.

But does devolution necessarily mean more inequality?

In Queen’s Park that’s a grim prospect. We conceived of our council as a mechanism to level things up, not down.

Yes, those living in our economically deprived ward now pay a little bit more council tax, but if we are successful that income will lever more funding into our area. One grant of £60,000 has already been applied for and spent on the local playground.

Surely, more power to our community council means more and not less power to local people, many of whom are as turned off as anyone by the spectacle of Westminster politics – despite living in the City of Westminster.

Whether a Labour general election manifesto will repeat Hilary Benn’s promise to “pass power down, money down” remains to be seen. But a spokesperson insists “redistributive mechanisms” can be made to work against the polarising tendency of local taxation.

Meanwhile, Green party leader Natalie Bennett says what a more devolved UK needs is an updated Barnett formula, so that central government funding is based on need. Also “basic standards – so people are entitled to certain things as a right” that local authorities cannot vary.

Queen’s Park community council is independent, not party political. But I have also been a Green party candidate in local elections. Decentralisation is the common thread, and one I believe should be seized by all progressives.

Susanna Rustin, Queen’s Park, community councillor, and journalist

 

 

 

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