Can accountability bridge devolution’s gap between identity and practicality?

englandjigsawOver on CityMetric, Jonn Elledge writes that devolution is meant to be about practicality and delivery, and wonders why questions of identity are mixed up in it. I think there’s a problem with phrasing the debate in that way because both sides of it are ignoring a key third factor in delivering workable devolution: accountability.

Both sides of the practicality vs identity debate have strong cases through looking at different sets of existing facts. The economic case points out that the way regional and local economies work rarely pays much heed to existing political and cultural boundaries and if you’re creating structures to enhance those existing economies you need to take account of that. The identity case argues that the cultural and political links that have developed outside of the economic sphere are just as important as the economic links and need to be recognised too. As Jonn points out, existing devolution in Britain has been based primarily on those cultural boundaries rather than the economic ones, which has led to an expectation that further devolution (particularly within England) should follow the same course.

This isn’t actually a new argument, but one that flares up continually whenever local government structures are tinkered with. The Redcliffe-Maud proposals for local and regional government were based on similar ideas of economic practicality and foundered on questions of identity and even the more modest reforms of the 70s faced opposition to the movement of borders to reflect economic reality. This is why I live in Essex now, not Suffolk as was proposed back then.

As I’ve argued before, one of the key problems facing local government in England is the confusing mess of accountability and responsibility built into the current system. Even people who’ve worked in local government for years have problems keeping track of which acronymic organisation covering which patch of geography is responsible for which issue, which means that any attempt to do something often disappears into a mass of conflicting bureaucracies. The current proposals for devolution are doing very little to resolve this mess, and are even adding to it by adding another organisation (the city region) into the equation.

This leads us to a situation where we have some institutions and organisations that are based on practicality, while others are based on identity, but none of them end up being very accountable to the people they’re supposed to be serving. The arguments from the two sides (practicality and identity) end up sailing past each other because they’re both referring to different things and basing their arguments on different sets of facts.

That’s why I think accountability needs to be an important part of any devolution proposal. It is possible to create new institutions that work over historic cultural boundaries, but the people have to be part of the process and the drawing of boundaries has to reflect cultural links as well as economic ones. The technocratic practicality argument of ‘this is what is best for you’ has to yield to some local realities, but the identity counter-argument also has to accept that identities can change over time and people can have multiple ones.

Expecting cultural, economic and governmental boundaries to match perfectly is foolish, and any devolution solution is always going to anger somebody. Demanding that identity or practicality alone should be the sole consideration is going to lead to problems, and any solution that’s going to be successful in the long-term needs to balance the two through ensuring it’s accountable. Accountability isn’t just about the practical structures of the system but also recognising and creating shared expectations and culture amongst the people that system is representing and serving. That may be the common ground that enough of the two sides can come together on to create something that pleases enough (if not all) of them.

Worth Reading 184: Abandoning the Antonine Wall

The sin of pride: We can’t afford a smug Chancellor – George Osborne’s policies are too short-term to protect the British economy when the next crash comes.
The 1992 Olympic Bid – In a move that made a lot more sense then than it appears to in hindsight, Birmingham bid for the 1992 Olympics. The Brumpic blog has a lot more about the bid.
Dan Hannan and Owen Jones are both wrong on Portugal – Someone who actually understands Portuguese politics explains why there hasn’t been a coup there, and how partisan commentators are misrepresenting the normal political process to score points.
The Lords and tax credits: fact and myth – Meg Russell of UCL’s Constitution Unit explains the actual position of the House of Lords and its powers, which is different from that assumed by many commentators.
Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse centralises power and devolves blame – From a Labour perspective, but explains very well how the Government’s current devolution proposals are about extending the control of the TReasury, not giving genuine power to regions.

Slouching towards post-democracy

Amidst the blizzard of tasteful words hiding monstrous schemes that made up David Cameron’s speech yesterday, there was one part that felt out of place with the rest of the recent Tory rhetoric. When he was talking about schools, he said this:

So my next ambition is this: 500 new Free Schools, every school an academy…and yes – Local Authorities running schools a thing of the past.

(emphasis added) And yes, it got a round of applause from the audience, which is odd, as the rhetoric from the Tories the rest of the time has been proclaiming devolution and talking about how they’re handing power down from Whitehall. Yet here, Cameron is declaring – and the audience applauding – the end of any semblance of local control over education. As is already the case with most health services, the first democratically accountable person in the chain of management and control over your local school will be the Secretary of State for Education.

Sure, there are lots of efforts to make it look like they are accountable, but at every point that accountability is trumped by someone else holding the real power, who can ignore anything they don’t like. The pretence is that having choice gives people power, but how much of that power remains after the choice is made? Like democracy, real accountability has to be part of a ongoing process, not just a single event.

This, of course, is the usual modus operandi for the Tories. Big, bold claims about opening up services, providing choice, freedom and everything else, while actually instituting systems that take power further away from the people than it was before. There’s a huge illusionary trick being pulled off as Cameron and Osborne dazzle the crowd with language that sounds as though they’re giving away power when in reality they’re doing anything but. Under the guise of devolution, power is actually being pulled away from the people, insulated from any direct accountability and the possibility of any real local control.

Consider Osborne’s much-vaunted city regions. How will they be run? Through a board where almost all of the members are indirectly elected and the one that is (the regional mayor) won’t have any structures around them to provide checks and balances or to scrutinise them. Just as we’ve seen with PCCs, you’ll get to vote for someone once every four years and hope that they’re doing what you voted for during that time. Meanwhile, we’ve already been told that any decision to approve an increase in business rates will need to be approved by the unelected Local Enterprise Partnership. LEPs have already been given massive amounts of money to spend outside of any democratic control, and how long before the usual steady creep gives them even more unaccountable power over local decisions?

postdemocracyTo me, it feels like the institutions of post-democracy are being assembled around us, and the key part of post-democracy is that while democratic forms still exist for the public face of the system, they have little say over the operation of power within it. The rhetoric of democracy is being used to introduce systems that hollow out the practice of it, telling people that they are free while gradually removing any of the tools they may have used to exercise that freedom and make power accountable. That’s the prospect being laid out in front of us – no sudden change from one system to another, just a gradual whittling away of power – and if we’re going to confront it, then we need to get comfortable talking abour power.

Worth Reading 176: The Gliese with a planet

30 years on: What really happened at the Battle of the Beanfield? – A fascinating account of policy brutality against a group of travellers in the 1980s.
Charles Kennedy – a lovely man, a talented politician, a great friend with a shared enemy – A very touching reminiscence on his friend’s death from Alistair Campbell.
Taking the Power in the Northern Powerhouse – Loz Kaye on the massive democratic deficits in the government’s devolution proposals.
On Fantasy Island: British politics, English judges and the European Convention on Human Rights – Excellet long piece from Conor Gearty on ‘the fantasies that underpin English public law’ and how misunderstanding is driving a flawed impression of the HRA and ECHR.
Debunking the Rare Published Climate Denier Paper – Monckton edition – The Dake Page points out the problems with a new paper that supposedly overturns existing climate science (spoiler: it doesn’t) but also provides a useful guide for establishing the veracity of claims made in supposedly scientific publications

George Osborne has some good ideas…and some terrible ones as well

englandjigsawIn this interview with the Guardian, George Osborne does make some good points about the importance of devolution, and does seem to be genuinely committed to giving more powers away from Whitehall, even to the extent of giving some local authorities more control over the purse strings. Sure, it’s not full devolution or a commitment to proper federalism, but when it’s compared to Eric Pickles’ vision of localism – where you’re locally free to decide how much you agree with him – it’s a refreshing change.

However, all that’s tempered by his devotion to a single model of devolution – combined authorities (usually as ‘city regions’) with elected mayors. I’ve written before about the problems caused by combined authorities in that they’re just adding another level of bureaucracy to an already confusing system of local governance and not making things any easier or more democratic.

However, in the light of some of the rhetoric from the election campaign, I’m still confused by the way Osborne – and so much of Whitehall – is continuing to push elected mayors, despite the fact that people have consistently rejected them. We hear howls of protest whenever it’s suggested that the SNP might consider having another independence referendum in Scotland in the next few years, on the grounds that last September settled the issue for a generation. Apparently, though, the people of English cities aren’t allowed to have the same decisive say over how they want to run their affairs. People want more power locally, and to insist that they can only have that power if they agree to Whitehall’s way of running things – a directly elected model of sole power that doesn’t apply nationally – is to get devolution wrong from the start. It shouldn’t be about regions conforming to what the centre wants to get power, it should be about them claiming the powers they need to use in the way they decide is best.

Insisting on a single way of doing things is the Treasury’s way of asserting and remaining in control through any devolution process. Insisting on something the people have already rejected because Whitehall knows best is anti-democratic and undermines the whole purpose of devolution from the start.

Labour’s political reform proposals: some good ideas, but where’s the detail?

labourreformLabour have launched their plans for political reform (there’s a PDF with more detail here) and at a first look, they’re not that bad. Not perfect, but definitely steps in the right direction and with a bit more coherence to them than the rather random nature of the combined authorities/city regions plans currently being scattered across the country.

The good news is that Labour remain committed to having a Constitutional Convention and are looking at how devolution within England works as a whole, not on a piecemeal basis. There’s no detail on how the convention will be made up, though, and I’d be concerned that it could turn into another top-down attempt at reform where a convention of the great and the good tour the country for some set piece events rather than a proper convention where a wider range of people get to take part.

They also commit to replacing the House of Lords with a Senate, and I’m not going to rehash old arguments about that, but would point out that they only mention removing hereditary peers from the Lords, which makes me wonder if the current appointees will be allowed to remain in place. Like with the constitutional convention, the commitment is good, but the devil is in the detail.

The promise to change the way the Commons work is interesting, especially wanting to “discourage off putting and aggressive behaviour in the Chamber”. However, that is something they’ve got the power to at least partly deliver now. Indeed, if Ed Miliband really wanted to do something dramatic at Prime Minister’s Questions, he would instruct his MPs to sit quietly throughout it, and perhaps do something really transgressive himself like asking David Cameron a question that’s a test of his knowledge, rather than his spinning skills.

Introducing a ‘public evidence stage’ for bills going through the Commons is an interesting idea, but like any public consultation it risks becoming a gimmick and a box-ticking exercise rather than a meaningful input into the process. What measures will be put in place to ensure that the public’s input gets properly considered rather than included in a report that no one pays any real attention to? Also, will the public evidence stage be limited to those who can get to Westminster, or something encouraging wider participation?

We also have a promise that “Labour will reform elections so everyone has their say”, which sounds promising, but is mostly tweaks in administration of elections (votes at 16, changes to registration and trials of online voting) and doesn’t include any commitment to electoral reform. If they truly want a system that gives everyone their say, then they can’t get that with the current electoral system. However, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and the many Labour MPs in safe seats would be up in arms if the party started campaigning for them to have a harder time of it.

It’s good to see Labour putting forward proposals on political reform, but as we’ve seen before from Governments of all stripes, good intentions in this field don’t always lead to good outcomes. There’s more detail needed on all the proposals to make them more than just positive soundbites, and they need to be something that makes a real difference, not just a bit of PR that’ll make no real difference to the way things work. Are Labour serious about changing the way power works in this country? These proposals suggest they might be, but they need to demonstrate that commitment not just mouth a few platitudes.

Devolution and the power of local bureaucracy

cbebackI’ve been thinking some more about devolution recently, particularly the ‘city region’/combined authority model that seems to be all the rage at the moment. I’ve outlined before why I think this isn’t a good way of going about devolution – not least because the people have been kept as far away from any discussions about it as possible – but I want to look in a bit more detail at the implications of part of that.

One of the mantras readily uttered by proponents of this method of devolution is that ‘people don’t want more politicians’, and so there are no major democratic institutions being set up to oversee these combined authorities. However, just because there aren’t new politicians doesn’t mean that there isn’t any new bureaucracy and like the LEPs before them, combined authorities seem to be a perfect way to create a whole new level of bureaucracy without any sort of democratic oversight. It’s a clever trick, in a way. If a combined authority did come with a new layer of politicians, there might be pressure to abolish something else to make up for that, but by using the distraction of ‘no more politicians’, a lot of bureaucrats can be sneakily created.

The important thing we are told about devolution is that it will hand lots of power to these new combined authorities, so there’ll be a lot of work for people to do, lots of reports to be written, circulated, consulted on, discussed some more and then perhaps approved. The bureaucracy of the combined authority will get to interact with all the existing bureaucracies – remember, nothing’s being abolished or even rolled up into the new authority – but democratic oversight of this process is going to be weak. Control is going to be in the hand of leaders of the local authorities that make up the combined authority, all of whom are going to be quite busy running their own authorities and not scrutinising the work of the combined authority in any detail.

So, we have a situation where there are more layers of bureaucracy than ever before, but fewer ways to keep check on them. What this gives is the possibility to develop what’s effectively a local deep state – a permanent bureaucracy that effectively sets the parameters of what is and isn’t possible within the political sphere and keeps everything within that consensus. An important part of this is having multiple bureaucracies that can feed off each other and give a seemingly democratic imprimatur to anything that emerges from their processes, despite the people having been kept as far away from it as possible.

The important part of having multiple overlapping bureaucracies is that you can give a policy document the impression of having had lots of involvement in it without it having strayed outside the bureaucracy. If there’s one organisation, it’s obvious that a document has just toured the departments, but once a whole host of different organisations are seemingly involved things take on a different complexion. Suddenly, a policy takes on a life of its own, with no clear origin, but lots of people trying to push it through on multiple fronts.

The important thing to note is that there isn’t any active conspiracy here, just people doing what comes naturally when bureaucracy is left unchecked. Their job is to make policy, and in a vacuum of any real political direction, they’ll go ahead and do what seems right to them, which will normally be whatever is the current political mainstream consensus. Even if an idea starts outside the boundaries of the currently acceptable, by the time its been bounced around several different layers of bureaucracy it will have become the requisite shade of grey.

Devolution should be about giving areas the chance to claim power for themselves and do things differently, but the current proposals don’t achieve that. All they’ll do is create a series of new local bureaucracies that are tied into the same way of doing things as everyone else, with no democratic oversight or control that would be able to control the bureaucracy. Instead, we’re likely to get a bureaucratically-dominated system where any democratic involvement is going to involve little more than rubber-stamping decisions that have already emerged from the deep bureaucratic consensus.

Has devolution in England been messed up again?

englandjigsawIt’s been almost five months since the Scottish referendum, and despite what seemed to be happening at the time, devolution within England has been slipping down the agenda ever since. Sure, we’ve had lots of talk about English Votes for English Laws, which with it’s latest incarnation as A Fair United Kingdom appears to be an excuse for William Hague to troll the whole country through dodgy acronyms.

Howeer, what concerns me more at the moment isn’t further Westminster shenanigans, but the prospects for genuine devolution of power within England. What I fear we risk getting is yet another patchwork fudge which shouldn’t be a surprise as that’s what all reviews of English local government end up turning into. Every one of them, from long before Redcliffe-Maud to now has started with clear and consistent ideas, yet ended with a mass of inconsistency and overlapping responsibilities, not even bothering to sort out the problems left by the last review before adding on a few new complications.

Consider, for instance, that where I live Colchester Borough Council has some responsibilities, while Essex County Council has others. Meanwhile, Essex Police and Essex Fire Service have different boundaries to the County Council, and the Ambulance Service operates across the East of England. That, of course doesn’t match up with any of the boundaries used by the rest of the NHS in this area, though it does coincide with some East of England functions remaining from the last Government. It doesn’t, of course, match up with the South East Local Enterprise Partnership that covers Essex, Kent and East Sussex… I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture and this isn’t unique to this area. The same confusing patchwork of overlapping responsibilities is common across England, and what we need is a system that tries to sort this out, not add even more to it.

However, all that seems to be on the table at the moment is just more layers being added to an already confusing structure. We’re fudging around with what’s already there in the hope that more tinkering will somehow magically make things fit for purpose, instead of starting again from the basics. This is how we get combined authorities and city regions being pushed forward, which copy all the previous bad ideas of regionalism and just apply them to different geographical areas than before. New arrangements are being made based on bodging together something from the existing structures, rather than seeking anything genuinely new. They’re also being applied in patchwork form, one area at a time, meaning there’s going to be increasing confusion about just who is responsible for what.

What we’re also seeing happening is plans going ahead without any involvement of the general public, either in deciding what they’re going to be or in running them after. There was no great bringing together of people from across Greater Manchester to plan the ideas for a Greater Manchester authority, just a bunch of council leaders bashing it out in private with the Treasury (see here for a shot of just how diverse and representative of the city those meetings were). Likewise, when these combined authorities start operating, the people will have very little direct input into the process. They may get to elect a Mayor once every four years, but there’ll be few checks on that power afterwards, and what checks there are come from an indirectly elected assembly of council leaders.

Yet again, one of the real lessons of the Scottish Parliament has been missed. That didn’t just emerge overnight, but was the end result of a long process around the Scottish Constitutional Convention and building popular support and involvement in it. Devolution should be a process that builds from the bottom, not something imposed haphazardly from the top and liable to be changed in the future by Whitehall whim.

That’s why we need a Constitutional Convention – and probably a number of them operating in parallel across the country – to look properly at how things are run and find out just what people want to see in the future, rather than just throwing something else into the mix in the hope that it’ll fix all the previous problems and not just add some whole new ones. However, that’s a solution that would require some long-term vision, cross-party commitment and detailed work to get it right, so it’ll always lose out to our tradition of short-term partisan ideas scribbled on the back of an envelope in the hope of getting a few headlines.

Worth Reading 142: The wrong end of the deal

The personal tax statement George Osborne doesn’t want you to see – Some accurate data on where the British Government actually spends its money.
Norman Baker, political journalism, and hinterlands – “We expect politicians to be “real” and then lay into them when they are. That doesn’t seem terribly healthy to me.”
The ‘Devo Manc’ proposals represent centralisation on steroids – Is it time to coin ‘Osbornification’ to describe the centralisation by stealth they represent?
What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050 – Some interesting speculation on the prospect of electric planes. Those of you with a more technical bent than me may well have a different view on their likelihood.
Five minutes with Robert O. Keohane – Very interesting LSE interview with one of the world’s leading theorists of international relations about the difference between liberal constitutionalism and democracy at the transnational level.