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The Time for Britain's 'New Federalism'

10/07/2015 16:34 BST | Updated 10/07/2016 10:59 BST

I love the unitedness of our kingdom. Ours is a rich tapestry that is unrivalled in the world, a union of histories and rituals and oddities, stronger together than our individual parts. But our unity should never come at the cost of these individual streaks. We should never confuse togetherness for conformity; never seek to leak the colours away from our towns and cities and shores, for some bland notion of oneness. Union does not mean uniformity.

As the Scotland Bill makes its way through parliament, it's time to start igniting the liberalism of localism; for more of our towns and cities to start marching towards the drumbeat of devolution. At heart, it's a powerfully simple concept; the illogicality that some gathering of green seated strangers from far flung places will know more, and care more, about the needs of a place than those who live and work and everyday their lives there.

I don't often find myself citing Richard Nixon as an inspiration, but his concept of 'New Federalism' - "... of faith in America's State and local governments and in the principle of democratic self-government." - is an exciting one for us to explore.

The commercial case alone for doing so is compelling. Our great urban lungs are being strangled of their potential; the economies of seven of our eight largest cities perform below the national average. Compare that with federalised Germany; from 2000 to 2007, all eight cities outside Berlin outperformed their national average. The City Growth Commission estimates that if our 15 largest city regions grew at the same rate as the UK average, economic growth would be £79billion higher by 2030.

When in coalition we fought for, and got, things like personal budgets, health and wellbeing boards, community rights, City Deals, and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), we were inching towards a New Federalism. These initiatives may have been dwarfed by all the talk of a tartan dawn, but they are the practical steps that shift real decision making power away from Westminster and into communities. When decisions are taken as closely as possible to the people they'll affect, you've got a much better chance of making the right calls.

Fine in theory, you might say, but if devolution is such a winner, then why have attempts over the last decade stumbled? In May 2012, nine of 11 cities voted against having directly elected mayors. Six months later, just 15% turned out to vote in elections for police and crime commissioners. I agree, that's hardly a mandate for change.

But are these examples evidence of an anti-devolution sentiment, or a rejection of some half-baked muddling of the pack? Research suggests that people engage more enthusiastically when we stride, not step, towards devolution. It doesn't take a genius to work out the logic; why bother yourself with an exercise in transferring power when it's only a diluted form of what you didn't have anyway?

Take our turnout rates in local elections - 30-40% is amongst the lowest in Western Europe. Yet seven out of ten people say they trust their council most to decide how services are provided in their area. So just imagine how many more people would show up if we didn't insist on an archaic electoral system that is so predictably geared to an either/or outcome. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, one of the country's foremost constitutional experts- and also David Cameron's former tutor at Oxford, (had he been listening at the time!)- put it well when he said that "electoral reform must be a precondition for a policy of decentralisation". We don't just need to restore local power, but also restore people's faith that it's a power they want to be responsible for.

As the Scotland Bill makes its way through parliament, many English regions will argue that the powers being devolved to Scotland are generously unfair. For example, both Scotland and Yorkshire have populations of 5.3million, and comparable economies worth £117billion and £102billion respectively. And you'd be a very brave person to argue with anyone from Yorkshire that their cultural identity is any less than those further north. Yet, as my colleague and Leeds MP Greg Mulholland has repeatedly argued, Yorkshire has nowhere near the amount of powers as those being devolved to Scotland. Under Britain's New Federalism, we could devolve powers across a whole host of policy areas- the skills budget, bus and rail regulation, probation services, affordable housing... the list goes on.

Of course, devolution is no silver bullet. There are no guarantees that devolved power equals better outcomes; and when things go wrong, people there will suffer. That, I'm afraid, is life in any arrangement of power. But there's no evidence that devolution will lead to predisposed enclaves of inadequacies. The German academic Christian Lessman undertook a study of 56 countries between 1980 and 2009 and showed that in the most developed nations, greater decentralisation in fact led to lower levels of regional inequality.

There is a palpable sense of public dissatisfaction with the cosiness of the Westminster elite. I hear it when I'm in my constituency, and I see what they mean when I'm down in Parliament. It doesn't have to be like this. Giving people and their councils the powers to shape their own towns and cities- and ultimately their own lives- is the way we crush the apathy. It's the way we crash through this perception that local government is neither local nor government. The time has come for us all to play our part in Britain's New Federalism.

Tim Farron is the Lib Dem MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale