A radical suggestion from the Local Government Association. But what would it look like?
This proposal came out of the blue for me – I didn’t see this one coming from the LGA. At its annual conference they set out a 10 point plan for England – the forgotten sister of devolution. The reason why this is issue rubs students from England up the wrong way is because of Labour’s catastrophic Higher Education Act 2004. Catastrophic because they used Scottish MPs to get the parliamentary majority needed to force the bill through Parliament bringing in top-up fees that only applied to England, and because that piece of legislation contained the power to raise those fees significantly through secondary legislation – something the Coalition took full advantage of in 2010.
Thus you have the principle of Scottish MPs being able to vote on laws that only affect England, but not vice-versa. In this case, anyone who went to university after top-up fees came in has been severely financially disadvantaged by what might have been tactically sound at the time, but a blow to the reputation of politics in general. That’s my take anyway. One simple question for senior Labour politicians is why students from England don’t have parity with their Scottish siblings.
“But Poofles, that’s ancient history!”
Tell that to the people still paying off their tuition fee debts.
Anyway, the sore in the constitutional system still remains. Labour messed up constitutional reform and the Coalition haven’t been able to resolve it. It’s still a mess.
What about the LGA’s proposals?
The first thing to note is they are not proposing an English Parliament – or even a grand committee for England within Westminster containing only MPs from English constituencies. What they are proposing is something radically different: the merging of many departments of state that primarily serve England only, or England and Wales, with a much wider devolution of powers to cities and city regions.
Which departments would be merged?
- Department for Communities and Local Government, (DCLG)
- Department for Transport, (DfT)
- Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, (DEFRA)
- Department of Energy and Climate Change, (DECC)
- Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)
- relevant parts of the Home Office
I can imagine this would also mean the scrapping of a number of agencies too. The Homes and Communities Agency would be one – simply devolve the powers and funding directly to local councils for social housing and be done with it.
What would the role of such a mega-ministry be?
My hunch is it would cover issues that required some sort of co-ordination that went beyond more than a couple of council boundaries. For example nationally critical transport or energy infrastructure. Long distance rail, major energy generation, ports and airports for example would all be things that would fall within the remit of such a department.
Haven’t we tried this mega-ministry thing before?
We have – under John Prescott in 1997 with the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions. The problem with this is Whitehall found it too complicated to handle. The frequency of the ministerial reshuffles also speaks volumes too – especially at under the transport portfolio that was reeling from from the poor performance of Railtrack and crashes at Potters Bar and Hatfield, in my view symptomatic of the catastrophic privatisation of the railways by the Conservatives in the mid-1990s. (Ie privatised in a manner that made reversal very difficult).
Why would this set up be any better than the last one?
This is what the proponents would need to make the case for. The two key arguments are the massive cuts in spending and having reached the limits of centralisation. The massive cuts in public sector spending means that there is far less money available for the sorts of programmes the old DETR (now DCLG & DfT) spent lots of money on. Also, the lessons learnt from those programmes means that there is far less appetite in Whitehall to run programmes directly from Whitehall. In 2006 there was also a change of direction that started under Ruth Kelly’s White Paper Strong and Prosperous Communities away from centralisation and towards localism. The LGA’s proposals are a continuation of this.
In a number of areas, policy control would move from Whitehall to local areas. There would, in principle, be less of a need to continually refer things back to Whitehall for decisions.
“But Pooffles – postcode lottery shambles!!!”
A good point – how long would it be before we started hearing stories of how people in some parts of the country have things much better than in other parts? For example having the English-Scottish divides across council boundaries? What’s there to stop people looking to live within a lower tax lower spend council area but popping over the council border to use the services of a higher tax higher spend area? Wouldn’t there also be the issue of those in more affluent areas with lower public need bringing in lower taxes (despite the ability to pay for higher taxes) and those in less affluent areas having to bring in higher taxes on those less able to pay in comparison? What role would a Ministry of England play in trying to ensure fairness in taxation and spending?
A chancellor in every town hall?
This was one of the things that stopped previous administrations from bringing in a system of local income taxes. It’s one of the reasons why council tax bills are property-based rather than incomes-based. Successive prime ministers and chancellors simply have not been able to stomach the idea of town halls trying to compensate for cuts to public spending by raising local authority taxes. In particular with left-leaning Labour councils, the fear by senior politicians in both Labour and the Conservatives in the past was that such councils would simply ‘clobber the rich’.
Yet if localism is to mean anything in particular giving people the influence over taxation and spending in their local area, is there not some merit in the argument for transferring the burden of taxation from a national level to a local level? Certainly there are arguments against it – not least the extra administrative burden that this might bring about. (Not that HMRC are without their faults – the latest NAO report tells us this).
Long term financing
The proposals on municipal bonds to fund infrastructure, along with multi-year funding settlement tied to the life of a Parliament are interesting in principle, although both require significant changes to legislation and political conventions. Municipal bonds certainly would make sense for somewhere like Cambridge – in particular with things like housing and transport. It would also make sense for some of the big conurbations too – Greater Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Birmingham and the like who in comparison to London have been starved of transport funding. (Not surprising given all MPs have to use London transport, but not the transport of other cities).
On fixing budgets/spending limits, one of the things I found people outside of Whitehall didn’t like about grant funding agreements was the clause ‘subject to Parliamentary approval.’ It brought a level of unnecessary uncertainty as far as public administration was concerned. Local councils did not want to be left out of pocket so understandably felt cautious until the money hit the bank. The clause about multi-year funding settlements tied to the lifetime of Parliaments is there to deal with that risk and take the worry away from hard pressed town hall finance chiefs. But that would mean some big changes around how Parliament approves taxation and financial settlements.
Will politicians agree to such proposals?
In a word: No
Because they are human
Too many MPs aspire to ministerial office. Reducing the ministerial headcount by at least four cabinet ministers not to mention about 15 junior and mid-ranking ministerial jobs means lots of already angry back benchers being made even more angry at being denied their rightful inheritance that more than a few of them may have been sort-of-promised by their public school/PPE house masters and directors of study. (I’m jesting! (Sort of!))
Actually, it is a serious point. How many MPs holding ministerial posts would willing vote for that level of devolution to the extent it would deprive them of the salary and trappings of ministerial office? A life on the backbenches?
That is why if such proposals are to have any hope, they need to be encompassed in a much wider and deeper set of constitutional reforms that deal with the whole lot: Parliament, Whitehall and local government. Also, dare I say it, the UK’s place within the EU. What are the powers that need to be repatriated? What are the areas where sovereignty needs to be pooled? (For example in the taxation of firms that operate in more than one EU state?)
Won’t there be just a little bit of tinkering instead?
Possibly – I think we’ll see at least one department of state go between now and the general election. There might be a few more budgetary chunks that get devolved to the new city regions too – one of which is Cambridge is in the running for. But the sort of small changes that are more likely to be delivered won’t nearly be enough to rejuvenate local government in terms of the public’s general interest nor in terms of increasing both the numbers of and calibre of people that choose to campaign and stand for public office at a local level. After all, what’s the point of standing for local public office if all that happens is you take abuse for cuts forced upon you by Westminster?