Unlock Democracy – written evidence (FGU0037)

 

House of Lords Constitution Committee

Inquiry into the Future Governance of the UK

 

Introduction

  1. Unlock Democracy (previously Charter 88) campaigns on a range of democracy-related matters including; electoral reform, transparency, accountability, devolution, participative democracy, human rights and for a written constitution. We are a grassroots movement, owned and run by our members.

 

  1. Unlock Democracy is submitting this evidence because we believe that the current over-centralised nature of government in England hinders developing local solutions to local problems.

 

  1. This submission is made by Tom Brake, Director of Unlock Democracy for Unlock Democracy.

 

  1. Unlock Democracy’s members were polled on all the Select Committee’s questions.

 

1. Is the current balance of powers within the UK optimal or does power need to be shared differently?

  1. Unlock Democracy members’ responses to Question 1 were almost unanimous, stating that the current balance of power is not optimal, that the UK is too centralised and that the power held by the UK Government needs to be distributed more evenly with Scotland, Wales and NI but also with local government.

 

  1. Unlock Democracy commissioned research from De Montfort University, published on 16 April 2021, which documents in detail forty years of local government decline in England. Unlock Democracy’s submission to this inquiry will draw heavily on this research and will therefore focus principally on the balance of powers between the UK government and local government in England. Unlock Democracy contends however that comprehensive devolution from Westminster to vibrant, well-resourced, independent local authorities in England, with powers protected from central government encroachment, would provide at least a partial answer to the English Parliament or regional government question.

 

  1. The link to the De Montfort University research follows:

https://unlockdemocracy.com/40yearsofdecline

  1. Amongst Unlock Democracy members devolution is very strongly supported.

 

  1. There is support in the wider population too.

 

  1. A Populus poll in January 2020, conducted in England found that a majority of adults are in favour of greater local determination for key domestic policy areas such as housing and education – as well as the introduction of more elected mayors.

RSA: English towns need levelling-up with cities on devolution

  1. This poll also found that

       On most social policy issues, people want to see issues decided more locally: just 18% agree the balance between local and national government is ‘about right’. Broken down by issue, people want to see housing decided at a local level (61% say it should be more locally decided, versus 18% who say more national), followed by schools (52%-23%), transport (50%-24%), policing (49%-26%), social care (48%-28%), planning/economic development (46%-23%), training/skills (37%-27%) and culture (36%-22%). 

       Mayors are generally supported by English voters: 54% support or would support a Mayor for their area, with 26% opposed.  Turnout in most metro Mayoral elections in England on May 6th (with the exception of London) was up, indicating growing support for the role of Mayors.

       But there is little ambition for Mayors to be imposed: 50% say that local government and central government must agree a devolution deal for it to go ahead. 

  1. Support for devolution is unsurprising. The De Montfort research highlighted the UK as being one of the most centralised countries in Europe, both from the point of view of the size of UK local authorities (larger on average than any country in the EU) and the low level of autonomy (one of the lowest in Europe).

 

 

Source: OECD & European Commission, Key Data on Local and Regional government in Europe (2016-17), available from: http://www.oecd.org/regional/EU-Local-government-key-data.pdf

 

Source: Ladner, A., Keuffer, N. and Baldersheim, H. (2015) Self-rule Index for Local Authorities. European Commission Report. The local autonomy ranking is calculated based on the aggregation  of a range of variables of self-rule and interactive rule. Details of how these were calculated, and of the methodology, can be found at this link: https://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/information/ publications/studies/2015/self-rule-index-for-local-authorities-release-1-0 

 

https://www.oecd.org/regional/EU-Local-government-key-data.pdf

  1. The strength of the independence movement in Scotland, growing support for independence in Wales, and in Northern Ireland a recent poll (21/4/21) for the BBC finding a relatively narrow majority of people in Northern Ireland would vote to remain in the UK if a border poll was held indicate serious unhappiness with the current balance of powers in the UK.

April 22, 2021 Scottish Voting Intention (16-20 Apr)

Opposition to independence for Wales falls to its lowest-ever level

Irish News Narrow majority of NI voters support remaining in UK - poll

  1. Devolution to all areas across England is essential to reverse this trend of over-centralisation. Should devolution from Whitehall to local government in England proceed, as advocated by Unlock Democracy and our members, the most significant impact would be a reduction in the levers at central government’s disposal to a) control local government spending, b) eliminate postcode lotteries, c) force local government to deliver central government’s local agenda.  Devolution would also require central and local government to develop a relationship of equals, rather than that of master and supplicant.

 

  1. Unlock Democracy supports CCUKDemocracy’s case, in evidence submitted to this inquiry, that a Citizens’ Convention should be a central feature of any UK governance review and would help determine the devolutionary settlement.  Indeed Unlock Democracy and a number of other organisations are lobbying both the Government and the Labour Party to include a Citizens’ Convention as part of their respective proposals for any overhaul of UK democracy.

 

 

2. What are the current challenges for multi-level governance in the UK and how can these be addressed?

  1. Unlock Democracy members had a more disparate range of views in response to this question than expressed in response to Question 1.  However, typically the challenges identified were ‘over centralisation, poor accountability and transparency, lack of a constitutional framework’.  Other common comments included ‘Westminster needs to cede power meaningfully to the local level’, ‘A Westminster government unwilling to work collaboratively with devolved administrations of a different political complexion’.

 

  1. The solutions proposed included an English Parliament, elected regional assemblies and a federal UK (and a federal England within that).  These are solutions that would require significant structural change and would have as many supporters as detractors.  But the solution offered most frequently to the challenge of multi-level governance in England, and Unlock Democracy’s preferred approach, would be very significant devolution to local authorities, including local tax-raising powers (linked to infrastructure projects that benefit local businesses or residents for instance).  

 

  1. This would require a major cultural change for the UK Government as it would have to relinquish significant power and trust local politicians regardless of party.  But it would require little structural change as many of the structures and the framework for devolution are in place.

 

3. Should there be a greater degree of devolution within England and, if so, how should these arrangements relate to the UK as a whole?

  1. Unlock Democracy’s members’ responses to this question were almost unanimous in supporting a much greater degree of devolution in England.  A typical comment was ‘there is a need for meaningful devolution to the local level with the presumption that any decision should be taken at the lowest possible level compatible with its impact’.  Devolution, with an emphasis on devolving powers and granting financial autonomy to local councils and strengthening a form of regional authority was the preferred approach. 

 

  1. This echoes Unlock Democracy’s position that more powers should be devolved to English local authorities and that the principle of subsidiarity should be embraced in full, as is the norm in most Western liberal democracies.

 

  1. The De Montfort research referred to previously, Local Government in England - Forty Years of Decline, sets how local councils’ powers have declined and the consequences of that decline. The key findings from the research include;

 

        From the late 1970s onwards, there has been a considerable shift away from the model of the ‘sovereign council’ towards a more disempowered local government.

        Local government reform in England has been a persistent feature over the past forty years. The ‘tools of central control’ adopted by Whitehall to achieve this have changed under different administrations, but the direction of travel has been clear and consistent, with more and more powers being chipped away from local authorities.

        This erosion of local autonomy has been enacted through the more frequent resort to law courts and legalisation of central-local relations, but has also often come ‘in disguise’. The use of secondary legislation has spiralled, allowing the centre to extend further its hold on local government through the backdoor.

        The financial autonomy that local government enjoyed in the past has come under increased top-down constraints. Local government is bearing the brunt of severe cuts, which it is legally obliged to implement. While imposed by the centre, it is left to local government to deal with the impacts of cuts on communities.

        Local government services have been hollowed out through the increased use of outsourcing, and now local authorities have to operate within a complex, expanding web of partnerships that dilute accountability.

        This process of centralisation on steroids has been possible because central-local relations have progressively swayed towards one side. It is central government that has allowed, and often directed, the erosion of local democracy. Over the years, a new form of central-local relations has emerged: one which is undermining previously held assumptions about local government’s role in the political system and its invaluable role in building a healthy democracy.

 

  1. One system which the UK could learn from is the establishment of ‘autonomous communities’ in Spain. Such an approach might work in England where there is no obvious appetite for a centrally imposed model of regional government (or Mayors), but there is demand for more local autonomy and decision-making.  In Spain, all areas can benefit from devolution, at their own pace.

 

  1. Autonomous communities can adopt various levels of self-government, often in accordance with their level of distinct regional identity. A regional identity is not a prerequisite for an autonomous community and the creation of autonomous communities can create cohesion when people see their local authority delivering for them.  Spain’s model could be described as asymmetrical devolution. The powers for each community are set out in Statutes of Autonomy which are approved by the Spanish Parliament but cannot be repealed without the consent of the autonomous community. There is often a significant overlap in the powers of the autonomous communities and the national government therefore coordination and cooperation are necessary.

 

  1. The current system in the UK is sometimes also called asymmetrical, but is much more ad-hoc in nature and devolution deals are dependent on central government granting permission, rather than available by right.

 

  1. All Spanish autonomous communities have the power to manage their own finances in the way they see fit, and are responsible for the administration of key services such as education, health and social services, cultural and urban development.

 

  1. Unlock Democracy recommends that local authorities, or combinations of them, be offered devolved powers from a central menu. Local authorities could choose which powers to take on, rather than this being the subject of negotiation with central government, on central government’s terms.  Further transfer of powers could take place over time. 

 

  1. Due to the lack of a written constitution, there is currently no protection for local government, which could in theory be abolished by central government. Local government should be constitutionally independent and protected. This would allow local authorities more freedom and autonomy in deciding how best to address the needs of their community over the long-term.  Statutes of Autonomy could provide a means of protecting the independence of local government.   Alternatively a voting system similar to EVEL could be introduced in Parliament, where a 2/3rds majority of English MPs would be required to change the balance of powers between central government and local authorities in England.  Unlock Democracy’s preferred solution would be a written constitution, with local government’s powers, responsibilities and autonomy protected in the constitution.

 

  1. Unlock Democracy recognised the unfairness of non-English MPs being able to vote on issues that only affected England. However, EVEL is not a substitute for regional devolution. With EVEL it is still possible for English MPs from a particular region or regions to vote through legislation which has a negative impact on another English region.  Hence Unlock Democracy argues that power should be devolved across the regions of England to ensure local politicians are making more of the decisions that affect their local communities.

 

  1. Whilst there is some evidence of support for an English Parliament (see the link below), this would not address the demand for more powers to be exercised locally. Indeed there is a risk that it would further centralise powers as some would argue has been the case in Scotland, where for instance the Police and Fire Service was centralised.

 

Support for creation of a new English Parliament along the lines of the existing Scottish Parliament

 

 

4. How well understood in its constituent parts is the UK’s common purpose and the collective provision it makes? And what impact does this have on democratic accountability?

  1. Many of the responses from Unlock Democracy’s members challenged the idea that the UK now has any common purpose, highlighting in particular how Brexit has damaged the concept of a common purpose for the UK with its impact on the economy, trade, international relations and security.

 

  1. The only areas mentioned where a common purpose might apply, and this was by only one respondent, were defence and foreign affairs. 

 

  1. For those who identified with a common purpose, they held consistent views that this common purpose was very poorly understood as a result of a lack of interest, education or deliberate policy.  They held equally consistent views that this lack of understanding led to very low levels of accountability.

 

5. How can the existing constitutional arrangements regarding the governance of the UK be made more coherent and accessible, or should the overall structure be revisited?

  1. A standard response from our members was ‘re-visit the whole lot’ which is Unlock Democracy’s position.  There was also significant support for a constitutional convention or citizens’ assembly to drive the process of drafting a new constitution.  This is also a long-established Unlock Democracy policy.

 

  1. A written constitution would: be accessible to UK citizens, provide a focal point for civic education and a positive expression of national identity, protect Parliament from an elective dictatorship, expedite other reforms (such as voting reform) which Unlock Democracy consider necessary.

 

  1. A deliberative process, as advocated by CCUKDemocracy and Unlock Democracy, would raise awareness of the possible scope and merit of a written constitution ensuring much greater awareness of its purpose and indeed its creation.

 

6. How effective are the current funding arrangements for the UK and to what constitutional implications do they give rise?

  1. The commonly held view amongst our members is that the funding arrangements for local authorities in England are totally inadequate, with central government controlling funding and at the same time underfunding local authorities.  In the 2021 settlement only 3% of funding from central government to local authorities was in the Revenue Support Group which local authorities have some discretion over.  This severely curtails their ability to respond to local needs and demands.  Unlock Democracy would welcome a return to the ‘sovereign’ councils model which applied in the 1970s and the recognition of the importance of need in determining funding allocations.

 

  1. In question 4, the question of a common purpose was raised. Regrettably the UK Government’s decision to replace EU Structural Funds which were previously devolved, by a UK Shared Prosperity Fund administered by central government is likely to be more effective at promoting the case for Scottish and Welsh independence than that for a common purpose.

 

  1. The analysis of the Towns Fund and Levelling up funds distribution is that criteria, other than basic need, have been used to determine which areas have received grants. A return to needs-based funding is overdue. It is also questionable whether this funding should have been distributed by central government, rather than a locally-based authority, with a more detailed understanding of local priorities.

 

11/05/2021