After Scotland: English Devolution - why, what and how?

September 18th 2014 has changed the politics and governance of the UK radically and irreversibly. But let's please be clear about what we are seeking to do and for what purpose; and then let's get to it!

The fallout from the Scottish independence referendum is likely to be shaking politics and governance across the UK for many years.

It would seem that politics and governance in Scotland itself have already started to change, and whatever the outcome of the Smith Commission and the consequent new devolution settlement, Scottish politics and government will never be the same again. With greater economic and fiscal powers and possibly (and justifiably) control over welfare and social security policy, Scotland will increasingly diverge from and challenge England competitively. A new 'home rule' based devolution for Scotland has to be the immediate priority.

Further devolution to Wales and Northern Ireland will follow, if perhaps initially with fewer additional powers flowing from Westminster to Cardiff and to Stormont than to Holyrood.

There is, therefore a major English question to answer. This is about more than the West Lothian question, though that cannot be ducked and dodged if democratic representation is going to have long term credibility. The English question will require a major debate about the wider UK constitution and offers an opportunity to move towards some form of federalism which recognises the imbalance in size of the four nations. The Scottish referendum campaign signalled a new energised style of political engagement and any long term constitutional settlement has to recognise this popular movement for democratic renewal too.

I am not arguing for an English Parliament and believe that England requires a more nuanced approach to devolution and decentralisation rather than another national Parliament.

There is a strong case for a convention or similar to consider a comprehensive range of constitutional and political reform and their implications. This should not an excuse for delay or fudging some very fundamental issues which require answers and reform. There need to be two parallel but connected approaches - one focussed on the whole UK and one on England.

The wider UK constitutional reform should include the abolition of a second chamber based on hereditary principles and political patronage. Rather, there is a case for a senate, elected based on the regions and nations.

It could also address the electoral system. Reform in this area could include extending the vote for all elections across the country to sixteen year olds - the Scots proved that this is practical and enthuses young votes to participate; proportional representation for all or some elections (for example local elections) - my personal preference would be for universal application of this democratic principle; and introducing a meaningful system of recall for members of parliaments, assemblies and councils.

An English constitutional settlement could in addition consider how to strengthen local accountability of public services such as the police, schools and education, and more widely, economic regeneration, the NHS and many of the national, regional and sub-regional quangos that wield power without direct democratic accountability. This should provide an opportunity for stronger local government. There would offer the opportunity to establish a constitutional status for local government.

Subsidiarity should surely drive much of any new English constitutional settlement and the consequential levels of decentralisation. Equally it should be driven by a set of social and economic objectives which I hope would be based on the pursuit of a fairer, more equal and opportunity based society. This should not be about economic issues alone important as they are. It has to be about social justice and democratic renewal too.

In my view, an English settlement should be based on the concept of double devolution with powers transferring downwards to and from town and county halls. Consequently, the debate needs to involve civil society and the voluntary and community sector, not solely the public sector and politicians. Any convention must include these and other key economic, social and environmental stakeholders.

Already some powerful models are in place based on city regions and sub-regions and others are being developed. There could be similar models for the larger counties or for consortia of unitary and county councils. In these cases, it will be important to ensure that there are no democratic deficits, especially if in effect boards of council leaders morph into sub-regional quangos. I am certain that whilst some areas will wish to introduce directly elected mayors for super-authorities and others will wish to devise other approaches, what will be essential is that there is full transparency and accountability for decision making and of the decision makers.

The current rush and impetus to greater devolution and decentralisation in England seems to be being driven by a number of objectives, most of which are rational and legitimate. There is a desire to be able to have some chance of matching the economic power of London, which is almost a 'city state' in its own right, and especially in the North East and North West, to match some of the powers now residing in Edinburgh.

I believe that it is very important for the advocates of greater decentralisation to be clear as to their objectives. Do they seek enhanced economic powers with or without some additional tax raising or amending powers; want control over swathes of public services with or without the authority to amend existing policy and even legislation; and is the aim to have local democratic control or simply access to money and resources - or both?

There is a risk that there will be some in Westminster and Whitehall who will be keener to let go of responsibility for implementation whilst trying to retain control of policy and resources. This could lead to sub-regional bodies and local government being the agents of the centre and not a source of local democratic power. It is the latter that we should be seeking but only if the powers and resources follow and thus truly enable democratic authority.

Local government has a major role to play and should be wary of losing its democratic authority to larger, less accountable bodies. Not all decentralisation has to be to sub-regional bodies as the application of subsidiarity demonstrates. The previous Labour Government's Total Place initiative showed what could be achieved locally to improve public sector productivity, reduce duplication and focus all public resources on local well-being. And with local government as the lead partner, it could ensure local democratic accountability. So local government needs to ensure that its voice is loud and clear in the current English debate; and in so doing argue for more powers not simply the ability to form larger bodies.

England is a very unequal country, with massive differences between the wealth and economic power of different regions, sub-regions and places. Therefore, I cannot see how realistic and sustainable (let alone fair and equitable) it would be to adopt significant additional devolution and decentralisation without a new and progressive form of wealth and tax revenue redistribution controlled perhaps in partnership by local government and the central government. Local taxation should be permissible but on its own cannot ensure fairness or even sustainability for some parts of the country. Indeed, the political commitment to retain the Barnett formula for Scotland has recognised this at that level of devolution.

Part of the national debate should also be about the degree of differences and the uniformity that the public would expect to experience between different places, sub-regions and nations. This has to be a core consideration in a debate on decentralisation and devolution.

Further and much greater devolution and decentralisation is possible and desirable in England as well as the other three UK nations. Central government of whatever political hue will need to understand and facilitate this - though the cynics will understandably question any government and their civil service's willingness to let go (and let's hear no more patronising talk of 'earned autonomy, with Whitehall woman or man deciding if a place and its democratic institutions are ready to take on more responsibility) - but it will also have to be ready and willing to redistribute money and resources to make it viable and fair.

The challenges ahead are enormous, with no easy solutions in sight. The pace of change and advance will be different in different parts of the country, and the pattern of governance and devolution is likely to be asymmetric as are the social, economic and environmental conditions. Its design and development will take time and must be inclusive and not imposed.

Meanwhile, local government should seize what opportunities it can to develop local approaches, working with businesses and civil society but above all, through its democratic leadership of place role.

The key principles that should dominate national and local deliberations are democracy, accountability, social justice, opportunity, fairness, equity and sustainability at both a national and a devolved level.

September 18th 2014 has changed the politics and governance of the UK radically and irreversibly. But let's please be clear about what we are seeking to do and for what purpose; and then let's get to it!


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