Chris Auckland is a Deputy Chairman of the South West Wiltshire Conservative Association
The Scottish referendum was fought with pride and patriotism. The sense of national identity, from Scots and British alike, was immensely warming and reflected the deep emotions on both sides. The outcome, as we all know, is that Scotland will be granted additional powers.
We also know that, despite Ed Miliband’s best efforts, further devolution in England will happen. We know that devolution to England in the form of an English Parliament is unlikely to happen. Devolution to England would make the English Parliament and First Minister too powerful by comparison to the British Prime Minister, and would empower it to pass laws, especially on taxation, which could indirectly have a massive effect on Scotland or Wales.
Labour, as always, favours regionalisation, but it has come with great surprise that some Conservative backers have come out in favour of regionalisation too. On these very pages Richard O’Callaghan has argued succinctly on this very point. He has, however,
made two mistakes.
Firstly, and most significantly, is his core argument is that regionalisation can work. It can’t. Not because it’s impractical, or unfeasible, it’s because there would simply be no heart. I don’t know of anyone here in Wiltshire who considers themselves to be a “south
westerner,” and without that passion the regional Governments would be nothing more than a distant, cold bureaucracy with little better political will then a Westminster that the electorate so hates.
The Scottish Parliament works because the Scottish National Party has whipped up a pride in Scotland that had been consistently kicked since the 18th century.
Similarly in Wales, Plaid Cymru has given a uniquely Welsh identity to the Welsh Assembly. I fail to see how this could happen in
the East of England Regional Assembly.
Secondly, Mr O’Callaghan makes a patronising and disparaging assumption on the quality of local government, and by doing so insults the 8,300 Conservative councillors that fight hard and work longer hours than some MPs.
Local Government is a wonderful tool for localism, democracy and trust in politics. You know that you’re elected representative is someone that lives in your street, or at least within easy distance.
Not only that, but you can easily get to your local County Hall to see them in action. I see my MP maybe three or four times a year, despite being an Association Officer, whilst I see my local councillor almost every day as I walk to the train station. A Local Government Association poll showed that whilst only nine per cent of people trusted their local MP, 77 per cent trusted the local councillor.
Local Government has the ability to take on enhanced devolved powers ensuring that decisions are made closest to those it affects, which could also have a by-product effect on reduce the burden on central Government funds. New tax setting powers, perhaps replacing VAT with a local sales tax, could end the merry-go-round of Local Government funding from central resources for example.
All this also comes at the cost of no additional levels of bureaucracy. No new administrative infrastructures, no new assembly buildings. Local government is the ready-made repository for devolution in England.
There is, I admit, one major problem with this. Despite progress in other areas of the UK, in England Local Government makes absolutely no sense. The two-tier system of District and County Councils is undemocratic and confusing to the electorate, costs large sums of money and ultimately means that devolution is unfeasible.
Somerset, for example, has a population of less than a million, yet has two unitary authorities, a county council and five borough or district councils. This means that there are 420 elected representatives in Somerset, and all the associated administrative functions and costs. To attempted to devolve powers to that unwieldy and expensive megalith of Local Government bureaucracy would be century.
Similarly in Wales, Plaid Cymru has given a uniquely Welsh difficult and confusing to an electorate already suffocated by politicians.
On the flip side, however, there is an alternative. Just cross the border from Somerset is Wiltshire, and its relatively new unitary authority. In 2009 the county council and four district councils were merged to form a single unitary authority to represent the entire
county (minus Swindon and its own Borough Council).
Although initially opposed by former district councillors and some residents, Wiltshire now stands as a testament to the viability and success of the unitary authority system.
By combining and rationalising functions, Wiltshire has become a lean yet effective council, which has weathered funding cuts successfully. Wiltshire is the perfect
example of the kind of local government vehicle through which devolved powers could be delivered
locally and efficiently.
Replace the Council Leader with a “County Governor” and you have got a ready made method of federal-lite government in the UK. This already exists in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where all two-tier Local Government systems were replaced with the unitary model.
The final tool is to replace the House of Lords with a County Senate, with each local Council across the UK appointing a representative, similar to the Rajya Sabha in the Indian model of federal Government. They would require no new powers above what the Lords presently have, but would be considerably more accountable as it would instead be populated elected representatives without having to create any new politicians.
Regionalisation and new tier of politics in England are not the answers to the West Lothian question or issues of devolution in England. We instead need to turn to our capable, respected and hardworking local councillors, and invest as much trust in them as the electorate do.