George Nobbs: The government’s proposals for devolution are devised to fend off any real transfer of powers

George Nobbs, the Leader of Norfolk County Council, argues that devolution is needed that the current government’s proposals don’t go far enough.

Let me say from the start, that I’ve been in favour of devolving power to the historic regions of England for about as long as I’ve been interested in politics – which is almost forever. That’s partly because I grew up in a Norwich that had governed itself for 800 years, had been a County in its own right for 550 years, and had responsibility for every local government service. It also owed a great deal to the coverage and journalistic standards of a local newspaper group that had begun in 1870 as a radical voice of the common man and who’s first editor, Jacob Tillet, was called the “Robespierre of Norfolk”. I grew up in a radical tradition that thought we could govern ourselves better than anyone else could.

That all changed with re-organisation in in 1974 and local government has never recovered since. That sense of civic pride that had motivated great figures in the past like Joseph Chamberlain and Herbert Morrison to see Local government as what really mattered vanished almost overnight. The reasons were complex but now at last both major parties see the value of restoring that big City concept as a solution to the vacuum in English devolution. But it is only a small part of the answer. Back in the ‘60s the big idea was to devolve some powers from Whitehall to the historic English regions and that was what motivated the then Liberal Party and later the Labour party. It wasn’t something clutched at as a straw for a drowning man – as the major parties now seem to grasp it. It was pursued because it was right – an old-fashioned and rare political motivation these days I admit.

The plans that are being proposed now are a hand-to-mouth hotchpotch of what appear to be patently self-serving expedients. They are so blatantly devised by the Westminster establishment to fend off any real transfer of powers to the regions of England that they will inevitably end up by satisfying nobody at which point the usual smug reply of the establishment will be that “we’ve got it about right then”. It will not be right and it will certainly not buy off the demand for devolution. What is all the more amazing is the deafening silence on his issue from the one party that has espoused devolution for a century and a half! The Liberal commitment to this principle has gone the way of others.

How often have I heard the mantra in the last few weeks from the political elite of all parties that “there is no appetite fro another tier of government” or “nobody is suggesting regional government”? Well just because the North -East voted against it in a loaded referendum more than a decade ago doesn’t mean that everyone would vote that way now.  And I bet that, faced with the muscle that Scotland currently exercises, the answer would be a lot different now. And as for “another  tier of government”, there’s plenty that could be done to rationalise councils and to transfer powers from Whitehall that would mean that we could end up with less  but more effective sand responsive government, not more.

Before you make up your mind about what sort of devolution you want – or whether you want it at all, take time to look at those you are against it and ask yourself why. In my  recent but considerable experience of this debate, the opponents of giving any powers to democratic devolved bodies of any sort have been unelected life peers, the Metropolitan elite, Westminster  career politicians and party appointees, and, most vehemently of all,  members of unelected quangos who fear that their cosy world will be threatened by democratically elected bodies.

And one final question. Why is it good enough for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, London a handful of Northern cities, (and incidentally Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark) but not for the historic regions of England? Would any of those places that now have devolution willingly give up any part of their devolved power?

George Nobbs is the Labour Leader of Norfolk County Council.  These views are his  own and not necessarily those of any political party or Norfolk County Council.

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