Lord Porter is the Leader of South Holland District Council and a former Chairman of the Local Government Association.
I find myself writing something I wasn’t sure I would ever do: Kier Starmer is right.
Or at least when he says “that once the priorities of coping with the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic and Brexit are under control, the focus should be on subsidiarity” and “how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level.”
As he explained at the launch of the Labour Party’s Constitutional Commission, “this is not an exercise in shifting power from one Parliament to another – of moving a few jobs out of London, or to devolve and to forget. It will be the boldest project Labour has embarked on for a generation.”
The popular appetite for this type of initiative was confirmed by a poll, carried out by ComRes for the Effective Governance Forum (EGF) in May 2019, to determine people’s attitudes toward devolution.
It showed that:
- 70 per cent of the electorate want more localism.
- 60 per cent would like to see a greater proportion of their taxes raised by and spent for their local community.
- Their priorities for localism were housing, social care, transport, health and education.
- There was almost no difference in the attitudes to localism between Conservative – Labour voters, Remain – Leave voters, or amongst socio-economic categories.
A soon-to-be-published report by the EGF ‘A Comparison of the UK’s System of Government with ten Peer Countries’ reveals that the UK’s historic piecemeal approach to devolution is unique amongst the medium and large countries studied:
- The UK is by far the most centralised country.
- The devolved assemblies and UK Local Government has by far the fewest devolved responsibilities and the least financial control.
- England, the largest nation, has none and no parliament or assembly at all.
- Devolution has been enacted in a piecemeal manner where similar bodies in the same Tier of government have very different responsibilities and fund-raising powers.
Since the end of the Victorian era, central government of all political persuasions has taken greater and greater control of a huge range of services that were either the responsibility of civil society or local councils. This is made easy to understand by share of national expenditure: at the beginning of the 20th Century, central government’s share equated to 12 per cent of GDP; by the end of the century this had risen to 43 per cent. This increased centralisation has not only led to a huge increase in costs; it has also increasingly led to damaging outcomes for people, communities, public services, and for local government. Of the countries studied by EGF, the UK is placed in the bottom of the league for people’s trust in government, satisfaction with life, and GDP per capita.
The Conservative Party will have to respond to Labour’s initiative and it has a simple choice – to argue for the status quo, or to adopt a truly localist constitutional reform programme.
I firmly believe it should be the latter, having spent my political life campaigning for greater subsidiarity. But devolution is of such importance that all parties should work together to design a solution so that leaders in every tier of government feel that they, not just central government, are responsible for the prosperity and wellbeing of their places.
And they, not central government, have the place-based authority within their areas:
- to decide what initiatives are needed and how services are delivered
- to decide how funds are allocated amongst the services they provide
- to raise the majority of funds needed to meet the level of expenditure that they have determined.
Thus giving voters greater control over important aspects that affect their daily lives – access to good housing, medical care, education, policing, roads without potholes – it could help, in the long term, to restore that sense of community and local pride that was such a powerful force in the industrial revolution.