How Scottish independence could impact on local governance
The debate about Scotland’s future is now in full swing following the launch of the campaign for a No vote in the independence referendum. Whether the outcome is independence or some form of devo-max, one thing we can be fairly sure of as this debate progresses, is that it is highly likely to spill over into questions of how England is governed.
Two critical questions here that must be answered are how to decentralise our over-centralised state; and how to bring greater coordination and coherence to how England is governed at the more local level.
An IPPR North briefing paper outlines the confusion and fragmentation that continues to reign at the sub-national level in England. The real economy - as measured by travel-to-work areas - stretches beyond the boundaries of individual local authorities. As a result, a combination of quangos, agencies and partnership bodies are responsible for making decisions about economic development, housing, employment and skills at various different geographies. By our reckoning, there are at least 13 different bodies all trying to contribute to economic growth. This makes it more difficult for local leaders to develop and pursue robust economic development strategies - something areas like the North of England, with its rising unemployment rate, desperately needs.
The knee-jerk reaction of many governments too easily becomes centralism. Despite the government’s talk of localism, centralism has gone hand-in-hand with the abolition of the regional development agencies, with inward investment and innovation policies returning to Whitehall. Meanwhile the new Local Enterprise Partnerships and local authorities have only the power of persuasion to try to bring some order to sub-national economic development.
The need to solve this problem is neatly summed up in three observations. First, that England is a highly divided nation, and the opportunities and challenges that vary widely from place to place necessitate local solutions to suit local circumstances. Second, that there is a widely held belief that Westminster and Whitehall do not govern in the interests of all parts of the country equally, with people pointing to the needs of London and the South East taking precedence over other parts of the country. This is a proposition that a majority of people in London and the South East agree with too. And third, international evidence shows a coordinated and sustained approach to economic development is critical for success.
Which way should England turn now?
It seems regional institutions are gone and unlikely to return. Meanwhile, city regions and sub-regions continue to slowly and quietly accrue capacity, power and influence. Greater Manchester has led the way here with the establishment of its combined authority, a grouping of 10 local authorities coming together in a single structure, taking decisions by majority vote over economic development and transport matters. Other areas are interested in emulating this model, and extending the functions covered to include employment and skills. The call for further powers is mirrored in the LGA’s Local Growth publication.
But for this model to develop further there will come a point where further powers - such as significant pooled budgets or the power to raise finance - needs to be accompanied by greater accountability back to citizens. At this point there would seem to be two options: some sort of 21st century metropolitan county council or metro mayors based loosely on the London model.
One thing is for sure - if either of these models is to succeed, and particularly if they are going to be put to the public in a referendum in the future, they must be accompanied by a clear and tangible offer of powers and functions which enables citizens to see what their purpose is and the difference they will make. This case need not be about coordinating a fragmented quangocracy - important as that is behind the scenes - but rather it should be about giving areas the levers they need to create good jobs and ensure young people have the qualifications they need. Only this way can the likelihood of success be increased. And, further, only this way can English city regions even begin to compete with the much more powerful voices of places such as London and Scotland.