Yorkshire Devolution Movement - written evidence (FGU0015)
House of Lords Constitution Committee
Inquiry into the Future Governance of the UK
1. The evidence we submit before the Committee is qualified by ten years of interacting as an a-political organisation, on matters regarding governance & electoral reform, with MPs, Cllrs, the public, businesses and other organisations. Although we work specifically in the interests of the people of Yorkshire, we have debated with people and organisations from all over the UK, thereby learning of their views and gaining a sound understanding of the national mood. The written evidence submitted here for the Lords Inquiry includes evidence in respect of the six particular points welcomed by the Committee, per The Guidance.
2. Current Needs:
2.1. The UK’s common purpose and the collective provision it makes are not well understood in its constituent parts. There needs to be a clearer comprehension of the demarcation between matters for which each level of government is responsible, especially between UK and sub-UK level. Ideally, such misunderstanding would be eliminated by these UK institutions being responsible for matters of only UK-wide interest such as Defence, Foreign Affairs, National Security (including UK borders, airspace & territorial waters) etc., whilst everything else has been devolved to sub-UK level, including the devolved regions of a fully regionalised England. Such change would impact accountability only to the extent of it moving from UK level to sub-UK level.
2.2. The overall structure for governance of the UK needs to be revisited; simply making the existing arrangements more coherent and accessible will not bring about the needed change. However, the new arrangements should be more formalised with the principles and parameters for a new constitutional framework articulated and embedded in a written constitution. This would make clear the position in respect of matters such as those mentioned at 2.1 above. There needs to be greater public awareness of the arrangements so that more people understand both how they are affected by them and the part they should play in them.
2.3. The current funding arrangements for the UK are ineffective and need to be changed. The distribution and deployment of funding resources across the UK are neither fair nor efficient, leaving some parts in poverty whilst others prosper. According to the late Lord Barnett, himself, The Barnett Formula was outdated long ago and needs to be replaced by a more equitable formula. The UK Shared Prosperity, Levelling Up, UK Community Renewal, Towns and Community Ownership Funds will have minimal impact on the overall arrangements because the distribution of these are all under the ultimate control of the UK Government, meaning it still amounts to going cap-in-hand to the centre instead of having fair funding from the outset together with the powers to deploy it as the regions/nations see fit. Suitable funding could be as simple as a standard rate per head of population distributed on a “no-strings” basis.
2.4. There needs to be a greater degree of devolution in England where only a few places have been transferred any decision making powers from the centre and the level of powers transferred to those places are not only vastly inferior to the level of powers enjoyed by each of the Celtic Nations but are also significantly different to each other. Neither creating a greater distinction between UK and ‘English’ government in Whitehall, nor having English Votes for English Laws in the parliamentary context will have the required impact of power being distributed equally throughout England and the UK; nor will they bring democratic equality or equitable funding. To achieve those equalities, existing Local government in England, including the introduction of combined authorities/mayors, will need to be rationalised in some way. Every devolved entity within the UK should relate to the UK and to each other on equal terms. It is not a case of needing to improve the current constitutional arrangements at all but a case of needing to completely overhaul them.
2.5. As already demonstrated at 2.4 above, the current balance of powers within the UK is far from optimal so power needs to be shared differently. Dissatisfaction with the over-centralised governance we have in the UK has recognisably grown over the last two decades to a point where some extreme voices, such as calls for independence, are beginning to drown out calls for moderate change that would solve the very problem causing that dissatisfaction. In order to avoid pressure from these extreme voices building to a level where the changes they call for, and the consequneces of them, become democratically inevitable, those in Parliament need to respond to the calls for moderate change now and the required changes to achieve suitable multi-level governance in the UK need to be implemented, sooner rather than later.
3. Current challenges for multi-level governance:
3.1. Perhaps the most obvious of these challenges is that of correcting the imbalance which currently exists in the geographic distribution of power. There are at least six clear tiers of power within the UK ranging from almost Devo-Max for Scotland to “Devo-Zilch” for most places in England.
3.2. A consequence of the imbalance in the geographic distribution of power is the democratic inequality that currently exists in the UK. It follows that the more sub-UK matters a region/Nation can make decisions upon, the more sub-UK matters its people can vote upon. So, for example, the people of Greater London can vote upon fewer sub-UK matters than can the people of each of the Celtic Nations and the people of anywhere else in England can vote upon fewer sub-UK matters than can the people of Greater London.
3.3. Another challenge is to correct the imbalance which currently exists in the geographic distribution of funding. This follows a similar pattern to that of the previous two points where Greater London and the Celtic Nations are funded to a far greater £ per capita rate than are the regions of England outside Greater London. Also, whereas, particularly the Celtic Nations, enjoy a great deal of flexibility on how they spend their funding, those parts of England outside Greater London, even those with Mayoral devolution, receive theirs on a much more conditional basis. Consequently, “Delegation” is a more appropriate definition of the powers they have than is “Devolution”.
3.4. There is the challenge of tackling the perceived “London Centricity” of the current system of governance. This perception has grown stronger over recent years to the point where some people consider the parts of the UK outside Greater London to be nothing more than “Colonies of The London Empire”. The disparity between Greater London and the rest of England in respect of regional powers and regional budgets is only partly the cause of this; there is also a perception that more funding is outlaid from the UK budget for the benefit of Greater London than is outlaid from that budget for the benefit of anywhere else in the UK; vastly so in the case of other places in England.
3.5. Similar to “London Centricity”, there are concerns that devolving power to regions of England outside Greater London will result in powers and funding being disproportionately for the benefit of the biggest city or town within them. The challenge here is therefore to implement devolution in such a way as to ensure that powers and funding are enjoyed equitably, not only by each devolved region but by each sub-region and each sub-sub-region, etc., within them.
3.6. Another challenge is to make amends for the utter disregard for sub-national heritage and cultural identity shown by Whitehall in imposing upon people in England the false regions and other internal structures we now have. These include Lieutenancies, Local Government Areas, Combined Authority Areas and Statistical Regions, each having different boundaries and each depriving people of their cultural identity whilst imposing false identities upon them.
3.7. Many of the internal structures mentioned at 3.6 above are referred to as “counties” when they are, in fact, Lieutenancies or Local Government Areas; many of them use the name of a Traditional County when its boundaries include only part of that county along with parts of other counties and, similarly, some of them are administered by an authority called a “County Council” when the area that authority administers is not a traditional “County” at all. Cultural heritage is about people, not bureaucrats, yet, apart from the fact that these impositions have disrespected the heritage and identity of people, in making the internal geography of England unnecessarily confusing and complicated, it has proven to be a most ill-conceived exercise in bureaucracy too! The Local Government Act (1972) and the Lieutenancies Act (1997) have to be two of the most ill-conceived, disruptive and despised pieces of legislation ever!
3.8. Then there is the problem of political imposition. When an area within the UK is of a particular political persuasion but is subject at every level to a different political persuasion over a significant period, this can lead to either political disengagement or a rise in extreme action, both of which are derogatory to democracy. The challenge for multi-level governance in the UK here, is to structure that multi-level governance in a way that will, as far as practicable, give that area the best chance of being governed, on at least one level, by the politics it supports.
3.9. And finally, although there will be a need among all concerned to adjust properly to, and engage with, the new constitutional landscape, a significant cultural shift may only be required among people in England as each of the Celtic Nations have culturally acclimatised to a significant degree of autonomy over the last two decades. However, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have each proven that such acclimatisation is worthwhile and relatively painless.
4. Changes to the constitutional arrangements which enjoy widespread public support and address the current needs and the challenges for multi-level governance:
4.1. We have found that there is a strong belief in the UK that meaningful power must be devolved away from the centre to sub-national governments in England and that all places in England should be within a devolved region.
4.2. We found that all sub-UK regions/Nations, should enjoy equal powers, democratic equality and equitable funding.
4.3. We found that devolution should not stop at the sub-UK regions/Nations but should continue, via subsidiarity, to sub-regional level and so on down to at least Town/Parish level.
4.4. In respect of power and funding, we found that greater autonomy in raising and allocating expenditure should be enjoyed at sub-UK level and that the powers granted should provide such autonomy.
4.5. We found the geography of devolved entities in England should not be imposed by central government, as it has been to date, but that it should be determined by the heritage and identity of local people. As nothing better represents the heritage and identity of local people than do the Traditional Counties, with a history of over one-thousand years existence, these should be the geographic entities on which sub-national devolution in England is based, either as single Traditional Counties, as Yorkshire would want, or in clusters of Traditional Counties by their mutual consent. These devolved “County Regions”, along with the already devolved Celtic Nations, should then, after a period of adjustment, become the federal parts of a federalised UK.
4.6. Similarly to 4.5 above, we found the model of devolution in the County Regions of England should not be imposed by central government, as it has been to date in the form of “Single Mayors”, but the people within those County Regions should decide the model of devolution by which they are governed.
4.7. The structure and naming of parts, such as administrative areas, within each County Region should become a matter for the people of each County Region to decide, in much the same way as the structure and naming of parts within each Celtic Nation is a matter for the people of each Celtic Nation to decide.
4.8. We found a reformed Upper Chamber of Parliament is required whereby Members are elected to proportionally represent each sub-UK County Region/Nation for the purpose of scrutiny at UK level. The current arrangements are such that scrutiny can be regionally skewed because there is nothing to prevent the make-up of those doing the scrutinising being regionally unbalanced.
4.9. There is strong support for the new constitutional arrangements (per this submission) to be embedded in a Written Constitution as an official reference of the new landscape.
5. How these different constitutional arrangements would have beneficial impact:
5.1. The new constitutional arrangements would bring decision making closer to the people and thereby eliminate the dissatisfaction caused by the over-centralisation of the current arrangements. In turn, this would very much weaken support for extreme views and remove the threat of outcomes such as breaking up the UK through independence.
5.2. The new constitutional arrangements will end the confusion over England’s internal boundaries. By using Traditional Counties (singularly or in clusters) as the basis of devolved entities in England, these County Regions would become the new Statistical Regions whilst the Traditional Counties would become the new Lieutenancies, thereby making England’s internal boundaries much more streamlined. These County Regions and Traditional Counties would then provide Official Fixed Frames of Reference to end the said confusion.
5.3. By devolving in England on the basis of Traditional Counties, the devolved entities will respect and represent the heritage and identity of the people within them, thereby making amends for earlier restructuring which disrespected them. This would motivate both democratic participation and a will to further the prosperity of the County Region with which one identifies; motivation which the current false regions imposed by Whitehall fail to engender. The Celtic Nations, of course, are already devolved on the basis of geography with which they identify therefore already benefit from such motivation.
5.4. In bringing meaningful decision-making powers closer to people, better decisions will be made because they will be made by those who understand the problems and needs of each area best. The effect of this will be more able and successful County Regions/Nations at sub-UK level and therefore, collectively, a more able and successful UK. Federalising the UK on the basis of these County Regions/Nations will bring further success through the increased and consolidated powers federalisation would bring. Fifty-six percent of the world’s federalised countries are in the top fifteen percent of the world’s economies.
5.5. Due to County Regions/Nations having powers to raise revenues for themselves, they are able to increase the funds available to them to complete the projects they want or need, such as improved transport infrastructure projects etc. This will enable them to benefit as a County Region/Nation quicker than they otherwise would have been able to and therefore to benefit the UK as a whole, more effectively and sooner.
5.6. By County Regions being able to decide the model of devolution by which they are governed, its people can choose one according to the degrees they desire in such respects as accountability, transparency, representation and method of election. They could therefore choose a directly elected parliament, a council assembly or some other model, even a single Mayor, as has been imposed on devolved entities in England to date; the point is, it will not be imposed and that fact can only be beneficial to relations between UK and sub-UK levels.
5.7. In implementing these changes, all parts of England will enjoy devolution at sub-national level and all County Regions and Nations at sub-UK level will enjoy equal powers, equitable funding and democratic equality, thereby ending the current state of geographic imbalance in these respects across the UK and helping to end the perception of “London Centricity”.
5.8. As a consequence of subsidiarity to the various levels within County Regions, the concerns that the biggest city/town in each region would disproportionately benefit from regional devolution at the expense of other areas, will be allayed by the County Region carrying on the principle of equitable funding, to each internal area at each internal level.
5.9. Also as a consequence of subsidiarity to the various levels within County Regions, the perception of political imposition can be allayed by the County Region implementing a geography of subsidiarity that is designed to achieve precisely that.
5.10. Formulating the new arrangements in a Written Constitution will provide an official reference, available to all, that will give clarity to the layout of the new constitutional landscape. In doing so, it will serve to help end any misconceptions such as those regarding demarcation of responsibilities between the different levels of government within the UK. The Written Constitution should be included in the school curriculum and be used in other ways as a tool to achieve greater awareness of the constitutional arrangements; to help society adjust to/engage with those arrangements; and to help, particularly people in England, acclimatise to them more efficiently.
5.11. Having an Upper Chamber of Parliament that proportionally represents the County Regions and Nations of the UK will provide scrutiny that is regionally balanced. Not only will this, in itself, help to end perceptions of centric behaviour in favour of any particular part of the UK but it should also protect all County Regions/Nations from any proposals that might disproportionally effect one or some of them, including any proposed amendments to the Written Constitution.
6. This submission considers the future governance of the UK, including the six points particularly welcomed by the Committee; it identifies the current needs for change and the challenges for multi-level governance; it defines the widely supported responses to those needs and challenges; and it explains the benefits of implementing those changes in terms of a new constitutional landscape for the whole UK.