» Local government ¦ What You Can Get Away With

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.

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This is more of a placeholder host as what happens next is very much dependent on how Scotland votes in the independence referendum on the 18th. However, I just wanted to set out some of the things I’ve been thinking in an attempt to clarify them and maybe start some discussion.

What’s clear is that whatever the result of the vote next week, there will be a change in the constitutional balance between Westminster and Edinburgh – either Scotland will be independent, or more powers will be transferred there, which all the parties campaigning for a No vote have promised. However, there’s only been a small discussion about how that will affect the rest (or the remainder, depending on the result) of the UK. What discussion there has been has normally taken the form of a few mutterings, then someone saying ‘it’s all about the West Lothian Question, isn’t it?’ and everyone nodding sagely before moving onto other things.

Whatever the status of the UK is after the 18th, England will remain the one part of the country without any significantly devolved powers and with no obvious solution in prospect. Regional assemblies were rejected, and I’m not sure that a English Parliament or any other all-England solution is going to achieve much, as it assumes that everywhere from Carlisle to Dover and Penzance to Berwick needs the same solution.

However, I think there is a demand for more powers from some areas – Cornwall, Yorkshire and the big cities have all called for them recently – and perhaps what England needs isn’t a preoccupation with finding a one-size-fits-all solution but a solution that’s based on a real localism, with areas getting the powers they want, not the powers that Whitehall decrees they should have. It also needs a willingness to look beyond existing boundaries to see where new powers would be effectively applied not where it was thought to be in the 1880s or 1974 when most of the current local government boundaries were set.

In short, what we’re probably going to need is some form of constitutional convention, but one that’s not concerned solely with how the country as a whole is run but how we can keep as much power as possible at the lower levels of the system throughout the country. I have no idea what form that would take – with or without Scotland involved in it, but that’s why I’m sending this half-formed thought out there, in the hope it might get some discussion going. So what do you think?

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Do we want fewer councillors, or should we make better use of those we have? – Andrew Coulson of the Institute for Local Government Studies asks a few questions about just what local government in the UK is for.
Argonauts of the incredibly specific: anthropological field notes on the Liberal Democrat animal – Some interestingly accurate assessments of the party from a departing member.
UKIP: The victory of the ruling class – A typically incisive post from Chris Dillow, pointing out that UKIP are anything but anti-establishment. “The discontent that people might reasonably feel against bankers, capitalists and managerialists has been diverted into a hostility towards immigrants and the three main parties, and to the benefit of yet another party with a managerialist and pro-capitalist ideology.”
This Other England: The Inevitable UKIP Post – “A significant minority of voters who hate everything about this country except the past. It’s a depressing vision – but one that we now have to confront.”
How can we reform local elections? – A proposal from Unlock Democracy to allow councils to determine their own electoral system locally.

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How Liberal Democrat MPs voted against making it far harder to misuse libel – Depressing.
A Senate in the Gun Lobby’s Grip – Gabrielle Giffords in the New York Times
Dead children and monied politicians – and David Simon on how American democracy is failing under the unrestrained influence of lobbyists and money.
Do you live in a Rotten Borough? – New figures from the Electoral Reform Society on how first past the post distorts results in council elections. (And I don’t live in a rotten borough, but it’s within a rotten county)
My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters – Another chronicle of the everyday sexism some of us like to pretend doesn’t exist.

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Common decency fail at the Huff Post – Jim Jepps on why posting pictures of David Miliband with his flies undone helps to drive politicians further away from the public.
Eastleigh – Why There’s No Farage – Because, explains Tim Fenton, despite his talk of the importance of Westminster, he’s no desire to actually be an MP.
Hurricane Sandy Aftermath: Storm Damage Vehicles – An illustration of the amount of damage done by the storm, that also prompts questions about why they’re all being disposed of.
Against Save Our Thing – Alex Harrowell explains why campaigning to save social hardware is misguided when its the software that’s under attack.
The Shard: beacon of the left’s skyline – Owen Hatherley on how the 1980s changes in local government led to the skyscrapers of today.

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A very short post about Iraq – The Yorkshire Ranter with a succinct response to the ‘I was wrong, but’ brigade.
The less well-paid you are when you enter the labour market, the more your degree will now cost – From the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog. Under the new system of student finance “the greater your rewards from studying for a degree the less you pay for the opportunity.”
Why we need a Robin Hood tax to support councils and their communities – I suspect the potential proceeds of a Robin Hood tax have been spent many thousands of times over in op-eds and blog posts, but this is an interesting perspective from the leader of Corby council.
The HB Gary email that should concern us all – From two years ago, but a fascinating look at how fake consensuses are being generated online by mass use of sock-puppet accounts.
What If The Coup Against Prime Minister Harold Wilson Been Carried Out? – An in-depth look at some of the details around one of the murkier parts of modern British history.

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It’s Monday, and so it’s time for a new week of silly proposals from obscure Tory MPs. First there’s Michael Fabricant batting his eyes enticingly at UKIP, and then there’s this as well: (via)

For individuals aged under 25 who have not yet paid National Insurance contributions for a certain period, perhaps five years, unemployment benefit should be in the form of a repayable loan. An unemployed teenager would still receive the same amount of cash as now, for example, but they would be expected to repay the value once in work.

Like many proposals from the nuttier fringes of the Tory party, it reads like a parody – it’s not enough for the poor to be poor, let’s put them in debt to the state as well! – and the information at the bottom of the piece left me just as confused:

Chris Skidmore is MP for Kingswood, and a member of the Free Enterprise Group.

The name, the constituency, the ‘Free Enterprise Group’ – they all sound like things that could exist in Britain and the Tory Party, but do they actually exist? Is Skidmore just the Richard Geefe of the Tory right, perhaps Craig Brown sneaking something under the radar?

Apparently, no. Like James Delingpole, and so much else that passes for ‘commentary’ at the Telegraph, it’s entirely and depressingly genuine.

But it got me thinking – how hard would it be for someone to create an entirely fake MP and get people (including the media) to believe they were real? Kingswood, for instance, is one of those generic-sounding names that could be anywhere in the country (it’s actually to the north of Bristol), but if an article told you that it’s author was the MP for Queensbridge, for instance, would you question it? After all, there are 650 MPs, and who can remember all of them and their constituencies? Then if your fake MP was spotted, you could always invent a fake Lord to take their place – even political obsessives can’t name more than a handful of crossbench peers – though that is a trick that someone else has tried to pull recently. (But then again, surely Christopher Monckton is a parody that’s gone out of control?)

And finally, if you’ve had your fill of Parliament, you could always try setting up a fake Council. The 1974 Local Government Act gave us lot of names that can fool even the most experienced geographer – Vale Of White Horse, Three Rivers, Dacorum, Adur – as well as a lot of Mids, Wests, Easts, Souths and Norths, so it should be easy enough to come up with a name. Of course, there’s no chance of the media paying any attention to you, no matter what you do, unless you find some way to make them think you’re actually a London borough. Still, you’ll likely get lots of invites to attend and speak at Really Important Conferences.

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