Simon Wright, MP for Norwich South and Private Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minster, responds to the recent debate about Devolution to the East on Eastminster. He argues that there is ‘there is no demand for extra layers of politicians or administrative institutions’ and the answer is ‘devolution on demand’.
The referendum in Scotland, and the Smith Commission on Scottish Devolution, have brought to the fore a debate which hitherto has rarely extended beyond lecture theatres, think-tank policy papers and party conference fringe meetings. Even very recently, few people would have expected devolution to grace the front covers of national newspapers as it does today.
For my Party, this awakening is a welcome development. Liberal Democrats, and Liberal Party politicians before us, have always been ardent supporters of political and constitutional reform. We have consistently made the case for a radical dispersal of powers away from Whitehall to local political bodies – and for federal Government for the UK.
The concepts of localism and subsidiarity, with decisions taken at the lowest level possible, provide both more locally effective and more democratic solutions to problems than the cumbersome Whitehall bureaucracy imposed by disconnected power from above. A civil servant sat behind a desk in London cannot be fully aware of the significance of local factors that affect, for example, transport infrastructure planning in Norwich. Furthermore, they are unlikely to be aware of opportunities to deliver the best value-for-money as schemes are progressed. Neither can they be particularly accountable to local people for the decisions that they ultimately take.
Putting localism into practice has the benefit of reinvigorating our democracy at a community level, and reconnecting individuals with the wider political system. Where people can see that by engaging with their local authorities they can make a tangible difference to their local area, they are all the more likely to get involved.
The Coalition Government, and in particular the Deputy Prime Minister, has delivered a series of reforms to enhance local decision making. The Localism Act 2011 introduced the ‘general power of competence’, which has freed local councils from acting only when there is a power set out for them in legislation to now being able to act in all circumstances except where there is a specific legal prohibition on them. The Act also allows for the transfer of assets of value to communities, such as pubs, swimming pools, or libraries. This gives communities extended powers to retain services that may be otherwise lost.
Through the Coalition’s City Deal programme, city regions are gaining greater abilities to influence their local economic development and taking greater responsibility for supporting business growth. The Norwich City Deal reflects our particular strengths within the life sciences industry and the emerging digital creative sector, and provides the freedoms and support necessary for the city to release its potential.
In light of the debates involving further devolution in Scotland, the time has come to go much further along the path of devolution in England. This path crucially must involve greater tax raising and stronger legislative powers at a more local level.
Properly reflecting a localist approach, those new powers should come through public support from the ‘bottom up’ rather than through a centralised plan drawn up in Whitehall and delivered from the ‘top down’. Different communities will have different demands.
We must learn the lessons from past experiments with ‘regional assemblies’. There is no demand for extra layers of politicians or administrative institutions. The old East of England Regional Assembly failed to be any better connected to the public than Whitehall – it was equally distant, operating as it did across communities as disparate as Cromer, on the north Norfolk coast, and Watford, north of London.
The way forward in navigating through these challenges and opportunities could be through the introduction of ‘Devolution on Demand’. Legislation could allow for areas to make demands on Westminster for the devolution of powers that could include many of those already devolved to the Welsh Assembly, for example. A case would have to be made for those powers by the areas in their process of bidding, and would have to pass tests around geography and population, competence, democratic mandate and governance.
In this process of Devolution on Demand, no specific governance structure would be imposed from Whitehall. Cities, counties, regions and other appropriate areas could develop their own elected bodies with their own administrative, legislative and taxation powers which were most appropriate. Over time, all parts of England would be affected as beneficiaries of this approach.
The commitments made by the Government and backed by all three main political parties of further significant devolution for Scotland must only fairly and rightly lead to an equivalent settlement for the rest of the United Kingdom. After all, the population of the East of England is larger than that of Scotland and we have greater economic output too.
For England, progressing devolution is also a fundamental element of answering the ‘West Lothian question’. As powers for England (but not Scotland) are passed away from Westminster to more local bodies, so the ‘question’ of whether MPs representing non-English constituencies should vote on England-only legislation becomes less relevant than it is today.
Nonetheless, even with very significant devolution, legislative anomalies and peculiarities will still require a further response to the West Lothian question in England. That response will need to deal with several complications which need careful consideration, and should involve the input of the whole of society rather than the narrow input of political parties – all of which will have particular vested interests in the final form. This is why I support a Constitutional Convention, which would help to build public support around change as well as providing the opportunity for comprehensive scrutiny.
The debate over devolution in England, and what is in it for us here in Norfolk, is now well underway. It has moved on from the subject of purely academic discourse to being the topic of conversation in pubs and bars across the county. The unique political opportunity presented by heightened public awareness of and interest in devolution must be grasped by politicians of all parties, and it must involve a radical decentralisation. The appetite for communities to have greater ability to shape their destinies, and to be freed from the grip of Whitehall, extends far beyond the limited cry of ‘English votes for English Laws’.
Simon Wright, MP for Norwich South; Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to the Deputy Prime Minister, The Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP
Image Credit: Liberal Democrats