Thursday, 20 November 2014

Rochester, Devolution and the futures of local government

Today’s the day of the Rochester by-election, with the potential result of a further representative of UKIP entering Parliament.  Ever since the Scottish independence referendum, the political class & media have been focussed on two concerns: what next for devolution in the UK, & what does this mean for England?

The potential devolution of further powers to Scotland & (by assumption) Wales seems to have had more impact on specifically English politics than that of the Celtic nations.  The continuing rise of UKIP &, despite its name, the party’s very Anglo-centric focus has been one outcome.  A second has been the scramble for position from various interested parties seeking to seize the opportunity.  In this respect, Greater Manchester is currently in the vanguard with the “Devo Manc” proposal, although this does come with the caveat of an imposed Elected Mayor model rejected by Mancunians not so long ago.

The major cities &/or “City Regions” are currently leading the way & winning the narrative of devolution.  There is much talk of a “Northern powerhouse” & connected cities pan-Pennines & beyond.

But where does that leave non-city, or non-“Northern” (or both!) areas?

It’s worth noting the political dimension to these positions. Much has been made of the Prime Minister’s early morning paean to the need for “English votes for English Laws” following the Scottish vote; naked political posturing in the guise of the Englishman’s New Clothes.  But the subsequent clamour for devolved powers to cities also has as much to do with their being (broadly speaking) traditional Labour strongholds; without which the Labour party would be in even more difficulty than present.

So, the positioning is clear: devolve to established, traditional & in the most part “Northern” cities in order for the established, traditional Labour controlled authorities to remain & gain greater powers over finance, housing, economic development, & so on.

All of this positioning however, still fails to answer a crucial question: what happens in non-urban, non-“Northern” areas?  The post Scotland Referendum debate has been so focussed on the mythical disillusioned Northern voter that whole areas of England appear to have vanished from the political landscape, at least in terms of the devolution debate.  Does this illustrate a gulf between & within the political parties’ visions for England?  In the “Northern” cities (& Scotland, & possibly Wales) disillusioned voters need devolved budgets, local priority setting, economic regeneration strategies & transport infrastructure investment.

Whereas in the smaller cities, towns, districts, boroughs & villages in the south, west, east, midlands, & non-metropolitan North the focus is on immigration, tradition, “English” values & the scramble to out-UKIP UKIP.  (How much time has been spent debating economic infrastructure, combined transport authorities or similar issues in the Rochester by-election campaign?)  The silence from the main political parties regarding non-Northern metropolitan devolution is complete.  Some cities, such as Nottingham, & regions including the West Midlands are trying their best to ride the devolution wave in the wake of Manchester & the Northern Powerhouse.  But where is the Midlands Future summit? Or the East Anglia Powerhouse propaganda?

Almost all voices, from the Conservative Party to the RSA City Commission to the trailblazing MP Graham Allen agree that English devolution will asymmetrical.  The Manchester model (if or when it becomes a reality) will not be the Maidenhead model, & so on.  This is a logical & progressive approach, & should be applauded.  But that’s not to say that devolution governance should be proscribed according to the political environment & ideological battlegrounds of current political discourse.  The future of all forms of government – national, regional, metro, shire, & district – in the whole of the UK, face enormous challenges.  The benefits of subsidiarity (local involvement, accountability, trust and so on) run counter to the centralising tendency of Central Government, but in advocating localism and devolution the major political parties have acknowledged that 21st Century decision making needs to be guided by local needs, and address local challenges. In order to meet those challenges, our political leaders & centres of power need to put aside their concerns over Rochester & even the General Election of May 2015 & consider how all parts of England & the UK will be best positioned for 2025 & beyond.  By focussing on entrenching their current powerbases, they risk stagnation, greater discontent & obscurity & we, in turn, risk losing a huge opportunity for change.

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