Cllr Sir Merrick Cockell is a councillor for Stanley Ward in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which he formerly led, and a former leader of the Local Government Association.
Over the last three years as Conservative Chairman of the Local Government Association I have been writing and speaking about devolution within the Union and the unfair treatment of England. I have even described England as being the remaining vestige of the Empire. As nations from Ghana to Guyana and more recently Wales and Scotland have been released by Mother England, the only place left immune has been England itself.
As I have travelled the country, I have seen Westminster as distrusted in Plymouth and Norwich as Perth and Newport. Whilst local government is hardly loved, survey after survey shows that people have greater trust in decisions taken close to them. However imperfect, they value the transparency and immediacy of local decision-taking.
I’m not talking about a few percentage points – rather that over seven in ten trust decisions taken close to them as opposed to less than one in ten who favour decisions over their lives taken nationally.
This is hardly surprising. As we control more of our daily lives ourselves through a few clicks on a computer and decide the communities we want to be part of based on our interests whether they are on another continent or next door, so the world directly outside our homes becomes ever more important and Westminster becomes ever more remote and irrelevant.
For most people the intense debate about an English parliament fits this pattern. They don’t want more structures created by politicians and designed to continue to hold power centrally. They want to see Parliament, be it the United Kingdom or England, letting go of much of that power to the appropriate level.
Let some of it be held by groupings of elected councils whether in cities or rural county-type arrangements without the need for more tiers of government or Whitehall-imposed definitions of regions. Councils are increasingly choosing to come together and share their powers and funding. Let what is appropriate be held at individual council level and let as much as possible be devolved to individuals themselves.
If citizens can use an app to decide what they want and when in their daily lives then Government at a national and local level had better wake up to their expectation that the same will apply to public services. Local government will have to change fundamentally to meet this challenge.
Increasingly, the English have looked at devolution and said “if it is good enough for Scotland, it is good enough for England”. The truth is it is not and this is where Conservatives have a real opportunity because Scottish and Welsh devolution has been to Edinburgh and Cardiff, where it has got stuck.
Rather than power being devolved, it has been centralised. Rather than power cascading down, the opposite has happened. Local councils are fewer and larger, police forces amalgamated, no doubt in the name of efficiency, but that range of variety, local choice and local accountability has been lost as Holyrood and Cardiff Bay have made sure that devolution begins and ends with them.
So let England have English legislation passed by English MPs. But we are not a nation of 5 or 3 million but 53 million and believing that an English Parliament is the beginning and end of English devolution will not wash. Were that the case then England would still be one of the most centralised states anywhere.
Conservatives believe in individual liberty and responsibility and a small state. We should follow our instincts and transfer the powers that once were appropriately held on our behalf by Westminster to towns, districts, counties and cities and individuals. We should reject the ghastly concept of “earned autonomy” where communities are trusted with a smidgen of power and a whiff of freedom only if they do what Whitehall wants. Instead, we should embrace true devolution with all its risks. Only then might English voters have a reason to turn out in legions as the Scots have, believing that their vote actually makes a difference.