It’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.