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Scottish poll will fuel localism campaign

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Inlogov’s director believes the Scottish independence referendum will have an impact on English localism whether or not the Scots break away

“Whether or not the Scottish independence campaign wins, a significant vote in favour of independence puts pressure on the UK government to devolve more power to Scotland,” she says.

“There is also the campaign to give more tax-raising power to Wales going on quietly, and similarly with Northern Ireland. We are travelling further away from the old settlement within the union.”

The Wales Bill, which had its first reading in the House of Lords in late June, will give the Welsh government control of stamp duty land tax and landfill tax, and prepare the way for a referendum on devolving some income tax.

Westminster has promised Northern Ireland, as well as Scotland, more tax-raising powers in the event of a ‘no’ vote on Scottish independence. This direction of travel, Ms Staite says, will draw unfavourable comparisons between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England.

“It throws into sharp relief that England is still the most centrally controlled country in the western world. We will be left with England as the focus of attention for micromanagement by central government. The argument will be ‘why them and not us?’” she says.

“There isn’t a lot of room for manoeuvre in England for locally responsive solutions to the problems we face, and that is not intellectually or politically sustainable.”

In particular, Wales’s income arrangements will show up those of English local government, Ms Staite says.  

“Wales will soon be getting a greater proportion of its income from taxes raised within Wales. The amount of income English local government raises locally is between 7% and 16%. Taking a fresh look at how local income is raised will be critical,” she says.

However, Ms Staite says central government is likely to resist further change, as it has done up to this point.

“The resistance comes from a deep centralising tendency in Whitehall,” she says.

“Look at the Trojan Horse issue. There were five schools with governance issues, four of which were academies. We had the prime minister and the secretary of state getting involved.

“There is no way central government can micromanage local issues effectively. Either you give local government power to intervene, or you back off.

“That was a reflection of the way central government treats local government. It ends up prescribing something to fix one organisation at the expense of the rest. In Wales and Scotland, they don’t experience that anymore.”

Until now central government has devolved power with occasional funding, rather than tipping the balance of power between the capital and the counties, Ms Staite says – and this must change.

“So far activity has been piecemeal, with councils bidding for pots of money or the City Deals, for example. It is always climbing up the sheer face of central government control. We need whole-system reform.” 

As a basic starting point, Whitehall should make council tax calculations fairer, Ms Staite says.

“What tax local government does raise is based on property valuations that are 30-years-old, so we need a closer look at this.”

Catherine Staite, director,Institute for Local Government Studies, Birmingham University

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