Written evidence from Alistair Jones[1] (EDE 13)


Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

The Evolution of Devolution: English Devolution



When examining the issue of devolution for England, there needs to be a fundamental reform.  This reform, however, needs to be driven largely bottom-up, not top-down.  On too many occasions, reform of local government, as well as any plans for regional government in England, have been driven by the centre.  At times, such as the Banham Commission, there has been interaction with local communities.  More likely, however, there has been a steamroller approach from the centre.


This comprehensive reform needs to key in a number of issues.  This should include a degree of constitutional protection for local government.  Currently, central government can intervene in the affairs and structures of local government, and change things at a whim.  There needs to be a degree of protection for local government, and this should include parish and town councils as well.  Any further creations of regional government in England should also have such protection in place.  Ensuring such a degree of protection may enable local and regional government to plan for a longer term.


One of the things that is lacking, however, is the idea of regional identity across England.  There are parts of England where such identity may appear e.g. the southwest or the northeast.  Yet even this is rather vague.  Currently, the southwest of England includes Gloucestershire.  To most people, Gloucestershire would be considered part of the West Midlands.  Other regions, such as the East Midlands, are decidedly vague concepts.  Added to this, if examining TV franchises, there is a lack of consistency.  The city of Oxford, for example, was part of the ITV Central region until 2015, but came under BBC South.


If there is to be a reform of the local government system in England, there needs to be clear lines of consultation.  Currently, there is a drive from the centre, in conjunction with the County Council Group (CCG), to push for unitary local authorities at the county level.  Such a drive is based on alleged economies of scale.  The academic literature on this issue (as prepared for the Welsh Local Government Association to inform their submission to the Williams Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery in Wales) is split close to 50:50 on whether such benefits actually exist.  Where there is near academic agreement is in terms of democratic participation.  The larger the local authority, the less democratic participation - especially in terms of voting but also in terms of engaging with local authorities.  Further, although it may seem contradictory, is that the workload of councillors on such large unitary authorities increases significantly. 


In response to such criticisms, the supporters of these large county-based unitary authorities suggest that new parish councils could be created to improve the linkage between the public and the elected bodies.  While the creation of such parish councils is to be encouraged, it is, in effect, replacing one tier of local government with something similar.  The difference is that the new 'second tier' will have far fewer powers and far less resourcing.  It will also bear the blame should the system fail to work successfully.  What needs to be borne in mind is the demand and the capacity for such new parish councils.  Merely decreeing their creation, as some in the CCG propose, is wholly inappropriate.  There needs to be an exploration as to the extent to which these communities have the capacity to establish such councils and whether the capacity to deliver the proposed services.  Consideration need also be given to capacity-developing schemes for those parish and town councils which are already in existence.  Merely proposing these councils 'do more', and if they cannot then the service will be lost, undermines confidence in the pre-existing systems of governance.


Bringing all of the UK collectively, not just England, in line with devolved powers is probably the best way forward.  The problem remains, however, with the 'England' question.  If England becomes a single devolved body, it will dominate the Westminster parliament.  Thus, there may be a need to break England up into regions.  As already noted, however, there is a distinct lack of clear regional identities.  One option would be to use the regions as used by the UK when a member of the EU.  Arguably, as noted above, these were too artificial.


As there is a clear historical bent, one option would be to divide England up into the four former kingdoms, plus London.  Thus there would be Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex and East Anglia - the latter being extended to include Kent.  While these are still rather artificial, there is a greater likelihood of selling such regionalisation to the general public through those ancient historical ties.


Related to this is the issue of symmetric and asymmetric devolution.  In the case of England, it would be far better to ensure there is symmetric devolution at the regional level.  In fact, to protect this further, it may be more appropriate to move the UK as a whole into a more formal federal structure.  Such a move may actually circumvent the possible breakup of the UK by protecting the different parts of the UK from central interference.  Such abuse of power by the centre has been most clearly demonstrated by the repatriation of powers from the EU to the centre, even though such powers should have been devolved immediately.


Having symmetric power across the devolved bodies of England will highlight a clear move away from the centralising tendencies that have gripped Westminster for the past twenty years and more.  Arguably, this may lead to greater centralisation at the regional level, as appears to be happening in Scotland and Wales.  To prevent that, there is a clear need for the constitutional protection of local government across all of the UK.


The problem with the current devolution deals in England is that they have no clear objective.  Arguably, they are purely economic projects.  There is no clear line of accountability, beyond those bodies with elected mayors.  Even that is rather vague and tenuous.  Instead, the emphasis has been placed upon private organisations having an even greater input into public affairs.  This is best exemplified with the Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs), where there is no democratic accountability whatsoever.  Further, the vast majority of the public have little idea as to their functions or even their existence.


For devolution to work, the public need to be able to make an informed decision.  Thus if there was to be the creation of devolved regional government, this would most probably have to be conducted through a series of regional referendaOne problem that arises immediately with such an approach is the potential for some regions to say 'yes' and others to say 'no'.  Such a result would leave a patchwork system, as currently exists with Combined Authorities, and the likelihood of the system failing.  The experience of the Northeast of England in 2004 highlighted the need for a clear and coherent public information campaign.  Most voters in the Northeast, for example, were unaware a regional assembly was already in existence.  Admittedly, as with all of those regional assemblies, it was unelected.  Such an information campaign needs to be balanced, explaining both the benefits and the drawbacks of such a change.  There will need to be tangible powers and finance devolved, as is explained later in this submission.


A radical approach to devolution, and to bring those regions closer to Parliament, would entail a significant adjustment to the UK constitution.  One proposal could be to replace the current House of Lords with an elected Chamber.  This could be linked to regional representation.  As with the Committee of Regions of the EU, it could be possible to have diverse representations from each of the regions.  The problem with the EU Committee of Regions is that it is not directly elected.  It also has representation from private and voluntary organisations - which is actually an important feature of the committee.  These could be built into such a chamber in the UK, in the same way that some peers have been appointed as a result of their expertise e.g. Baron Norton of Louth, Baroness Grey-Thompson, and Baron Winston.  Thus there could be a set number of elected politicians from each of the regions, and for them to be complemented by a range of experts (all of whom should sit beyond party lines, or as Crossbenchers).  This would enable voices from the regions to be heard while retaining the pre-existing expertise.


The problem here, however, has already been noted: the lack of regional identities in England.  The suggestion for elected regional representation from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would probably work.  They would, however, be drowned out if England was deemed a single region.  The counterbalance to this could be for each of the four nations to have the same number of representatives.  Yet such a suggestion would leave the regions of England significantly under-represented compared to their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts.  This is a similar issue to the Senate in the USA - two senators per state, regardless as to the size of state.  In such a situation, the regions of England would be poorly represented.


There could also be a series of committees to draw in the different regionally elected bodies; to enable them to meet up collectively.  This could be modelled on the Northern Ireland situation, where there are bodies which represent the interests of Dublin and London, as well as those of Belfast and Northern Ireland.  The issue for such committees would have to be their status.  As things currently stand, the UK Prime Minister could overrule such a committee of regional representatives, who would be little more than an advisory body.  There have already been such experiences over BrexitThus these representatives would need to be given greater powers to prevent the centre from steamrollering them, or for the UK Prime Minister to acknowledge these representatives as the equal of the UK Parliament and government.


As to the question of public demand, the problem may well be that the public from around the UK is getting fed up of Westminster decreeing everything and expecting everyone to toe the line accordingly.  Yet, to suggest some form of replacement may result in ridicule.  Currently, most politicians are not trusted.  What is being suggested is another tier of politicians.  A tirade against such plans could be whipped up very easily, and would be very likely in parts of the tabloid media. Thus what will be needed is the clear devolution of power, and for that devolution of power to be both significant - perhaps as much as is devolved to Scotland - and constitutionally protected in as far as that is possible.  The devolved bodies will need to have the ability to raise their own revenues, more so than has been devolved to Scotland.  This could result in a reduced national income tax burden, but an increase in regional income taxes - something similar to what is used in many federal countries.  Thus there will be that clear need for the regionally elected politicians to be held to account for their tax and spend policies.  If these types of powers are not handed down to the regions, there will be little demand for such devolved regional government.


At the same time, these regions should have the power to enable local government to raise its own taxes.  For example, Birmingham City Council wanted to introduce a Tourist Tax of £1 per person per night, to help fund the Commonwealth Games.  This proposal was blocked by the Treasury.  In a new, arguably federal-style, structure, those decisions around such extra local taxes ought to be given to the regional bodies.  In fact, there are arguments for local authorities to be given those powers regardless as to the devolution of powers to the regional levels.


In sum, devolving power from the centre is essential.  However, these powers need to be real and significant, and the ability to finance them must also be devolved.  Failure of the financial power to follow will result in the creation of a toothless, and expensive, tier of government.  At the same time, there needs to be buy-in from the public.  This is likely to be the most difficult aspect, especially as there are no real regional identities.  People may talk of, for example, the Northeast, but there is a fuzziness as to how far south that should come.  It is a moot point as to whether Middlesbrough is part of the Northeast.  It is definitely not part of Yorkshire, but many north of Durham would argue Middlesbrough is not a genuine part of their region.  Thus breaking England up into regions will be a very difficult thing to sell to the public.  Retaining England as a single body would see it dwarfing and dominating the other countries of the UK and, potentially, the UK Parliament.



November 2020

[1] My name is Alistair Jones.  I am an Associate Professor of Politics at De Montfort University, Leicester.  I am a member of the Local Governance Research Centre.  In terms of publications, I have recently had published a book entitled "The Resurgence of Parish Council Powers in England" alongside other books, articles and conference papers on local government and British politics generally, in the UK and in Europe.  I also teach on this subject and, again, have been invited to do so outside of the UK.  Along with Professor Colin Copus, I was involved in advising the Welsh Local Government Association in their submission to the Williams Commission on 2013, and I have worked with the Council of Europe in 2017 on ethics and accountability in local government in Ukraine.  I am also in the media frequently, discussing aspects of local government. It is this range of expertise that I wish to offer in this submission.  I see it as an opportunity to assist in informing the policymaking processes.