TL:DR – Launch a Royal Commission to crowdsource the answers.
This is what the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs is asking.
Their questions are:
1.Should there be comprehensive reform of the English devolution and local government system?
2. What aims and principles should underpin devolution in England?
3. Should devolution in England use the reserved powers to bring it in line with devolution in the rest of the UK?
4. To what extent should there be consistency in devolved and local governance within England, and to what extent is asymmetry necessary?
5. What is the purpose of current the “devolution” deals and mechanisms? Are these purposes being achieved?
6. How should decisions on English devolution be agreed?
7. How should the interests of different parts or regions of England be better represented to central government and in intergovernmental arrangements as well as in Parliament?
8. Is there a public demand for such structures/measures?a. On what basis should the form, geography and extent of devolved regions or areas be determined, and what should be the role of culture and identity?
On population – how England compares with the rest of the UK
Before getting into the detail of this, it’s worth comparing populations. I pulled these mid-2019 estimates from the Office of National Statistics here.
One of the things politicians have left unresolved is how England should be governed in the face of the Scottish Parliament, and the assemblies for Wales & Northern Ireland respectively. For comparison, the Republic of Ireland’s population was just over 4.9million according to their Central Statistics Office. Compared with EU countries, England’s population is lower than Germany, France and Italy, but higher than all of the rest. If we ended up with a scenario of all of the component nations of the UK becoming independent states, Scotland would be in the group around 5m with Denmark, Finland and Slovakia between 15-20th in ranking. Wales would be a few places below, but even Northern Ireland would be outside the bottom six smallest nations by population. (See the tables here).
It’s understandable that the disparity in numbers inevitably reflects not just the political relationships between London-based political institutions vs those outside, but also in terms of public services and culture. For example the history of the monarchs of Scotland prior to Elizabeth I naming King James of Scotland as her successor is hardly touched in the English national curriculum. At the same time, it’s all too easily forgotten that as well as having a different education system (hence the disparity with English tuition fees), Scotland also has a separate legal system. One privacy case from several years ago determined that English High Court injunctions against newspapers naming people did not automatically apply to the Scottish courts, and that applicants needed to apply to courts in both nations.
The old Government Office Network for England
I started my civil service career in the East of England office in Cambridge in 2004 – one of ten, then nine regional offices. The concept was never one that sat comfortably with politicians and public alike. While the regions aligned with the developing institutions at a European level – in particular for EU grant funding, there was all-too-often a dislike from local councillors as to what the regional offices were there for – whether imposing large targets for house building in rural areas opposed by local campaign groups, to pro-small-state campaigners who saw civil servants reporting to ministers as being a nuisance or a menace to their way of running things. At the other end in the late 1990s was Tony Blair’s new administration who saw what a state local government was in, and saw the GO-Network as a means of bypassing councils and delivering improvements to public services directly through centralised agencies headed by chief executives appointed by and who reported to ministers. (With the inevitable accusations that it was the chums of ministers who got such plum jobs).
The Tories and English Devolution
A number of papers have been published recently on this – I had a look at the Centre for Cities paper here. Ministers have said they have a Devolution White Paper coming up, even though the controversial secretary of state responsible has found himself embroiled in another political scandal of late.
Chris Hanretty crunched the data in this thread here.
And Prof. Benjamin Lauderdale, Professor of Political Science at University College London noticed the results showed “an unusually clear case of electoral targeting of marginals as opposed to simply rewarding your supporters”. This was only a few months after the Secretary of State was exposed in a planning scandal that forced him to concede a high profile case at the High Court – as Chloe Chaplain explains here.
So that’s some of the background. Now to the issues.
They are expecting some substantial submissions going by the guidance on what to do if your word count is over 3,000 words. I’m not planning on firing off detailed responses now – the deadline is Monday 23 November 2020.
Reform of local government is a very big deal. If ministers are wanting to undertake such a thing, they should not do it half-heartedly and should certainly not do it for short-term political gain. With the current administration I think it is capable of both. What further complicates things is that the same ministers also have their White Paper consultation on the planning system still open. Yet planning and building control are two central components of the functions of local government.
Have we seen the analysis from Treasury and National Audit Office on past changes as recommended by the Institute for Government?
In terms of academic literature on local government, basically there is *a lot of it*. Even the process of sifting through it all and pulling out the important bits is beyond the resources of a select committee or a resource-stretched government department. Austerity, Brexit, and Covid-19 means that the human analytical capacity of the now Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government is extremely limited for any new policies compared to when I started there.
One of the most useful books from an historical viewpoint is A Century of Municipal Progress 1835-1935, which at the back of the book (digitised here too) has a table of all of the Acts of Parliament that affect local councils. Part of the analysis would have to continue that table – heavy an exercise that will be!
Comparative government – what is the experience of other countries?
This is one of the things missed out in the terms of reference. Although there is a risk of becoming overwhelmed by what the rest of the world is doing, one important aspect has to involve how administrative structures affect how countries respond to challenges such as the present pandemic to the climate emergency. Which are the structures that continually rely on ministerial approval from the centre (and the delays that brings) to those that can simply get on with responding according to local and regional circumstances? Because ultimately this is what the review of local government is about: trying to make better a system that for too many is no longer functioning properly.
If we are agreed that the present system is not functioning properly, does that answer the first question?
“1.Should there be comprehensive reform of the English devolution and local government system?”
Given the scale that such comprehensive reform inevitably involves, my view is that ministers should launch a Royal Commission to take some of the party politics out of the debate, and have that wider national conversation that can also feed in the lessons learnt from the response to the Corona Virus pandemic. At the same time it takes some of the administrative burden of the policy making out of the Ministry’s hands because the Royal Commission will have its own secretariat, offices, funding and functions that can happen separately to the day-to-day policy work of the Ministry.
What does success look like?
That depends who you are asking. If you are asking a small state Conservative, smashing municipal socialism might sound like a result. For a big state socialist, having a red flag-waving finance chief in every town hall up and down the land with full unrestricted powers to tax and/or seize land, property, wealth, and income to pay for cradle-to-grave public services might sound like a good idea.
More pragmatically I think it’ll start with the general public, and the everyday citizen having at least a basic understanding of what their council is there for, and having a basic level of informed consent for the taxation raised and the services provided.
Secondly I think there has to be something about the use of things like modern communications technology and big data/real time data that improves decision-making. Whether from day-to-day things like managing traffic and public transport through to responding to emergencies and crises – such as outbreaks of disease and infection.
Third, I think we’ve reached some of the limits of centralisation – in particular public services that since 1945 have reported to a secretary of state rather than a local council – such as the Job Centre. (A concept pioneered by Eglantyne Jebb under the watchful eye of Florence Ada Keynes in early 20thC Cambridge before Lloyd George found out about their work and expanded it nationwide). A powerful case for this is with primary health services and local housing services. Poor housing has been known for centuries to be a cause of ill health. Yet there is no system that enables general practitioners and community nurses to get those living with ill-health due to poor housing to get the housing problems sorted. Their only tools are medical ones.
Finally – and this comes back to the first point, the general public will notice the positive difference made by the changes. They may not know how or why, but they will have noticed that things in their neighbourhood have gotten better.