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Politics Matters

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Graham Allen MP on enshrining devolution in law

When Gordon Brown made his first speech to the House of Commons as prime minister, the topic was of a new democratic settlement. In this he promised the "devolution of powers and responsibilities to local government and accountability of our local police and health services to their communities".

What is certain is that local power loaned by central government by edict or even by parliamentary statute is a sham. It can be taken away just as quickly as it can be offered.

Almost every other democratic nation not only speaks the language of decentralisation, devolution, local budget holding, participation and team working, but also delivers their promises. The European charter of local self government was signed by our government, but its spirit still needs to be given form. Only theUK, andEnglandin particular, stays stuck in a command-style politics that died with Leonid Brezhnev elsewhere in the world.

Now the government has pledged to introduce a 'concordat' between central and local government. Local government needs to get off its knees and argue for two fundamental principles of its own freedom.

First, to guarantee local councils' independence, they must be created in law as independent and sovereign entities. That power should be further guaranteed by a legally enforceable definition of subsidiarity in the European constitution.

In that new settlement, councils would be able to do anything not prohibited by law, turning on its head the present injunction that prohibits them from doing anything unless it is expressly allowed by law.

The pull of centralism, however, is so great that even a government that had created independent local government might succumb to the temptation to meddle unless such local rights were put constitutionally out of bounds. That could be achieved initially by an amendment to the Parliament Act 1911 allowing the second chamber to veto legislation threatening the agreed rights of local government.

Second, political independence for councils means nothing without financial independence. Central government must be removed from the financial equation and localism given monetary teeth. To do so, a radical new settlement on taxation needs to be implemented.

At present, income tax is first collected from local taxpayers by Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs and then distributed back to localities via central government. In future, the same level of income tax revenue should still be collected by the revenue, leaving the taxpayer and tax rates completely unaffected financially.

However, the precise amount that goes to local government equivalent to about 50% of the income tax take inEnglandandWales should be ring-fenced and go directly to it, not via the centre.

Redistribution could take place via the Local Government Association or an independent commission, legally separate and dislocated fromWhitehall. There is no reason why most of such a commission's members should not be elected councillors from all parties.

Central government would still have the ability to intervene, as other federal governments do in western democracies, for specific, time-limited purposes like helping out with urban regeneration for five years.

Throwing away the crutch of central government will be frightening as well as exciting. There will be no one else to blame any more. However, devoted public service has always characterised local councillors of all parties. They will respond to their liberty.

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