DON’T RUSH IT
There is a danger that an historic opportunity to reform our governance structures is going to be missed in the rush to settle the well named EVEL (English Votes for English Laws) issue.
We should take time, but not spin it out as some Labour Party politicians would wish.
I have tried to put together a whole range of issues that need to be addressed in a constitutional conversation with the people over the next 12 months. This could lead to legislation in the second year of the new Parliament. The purpose is to indicate the huge scope of change that politicians should be addressing rather than adopting our usual piecemeal approach to the subject.
I start from the lowest level of our democracy, on through what should happen in England and then deal with the House of Lords.
Every part of England should have a parish or community council with enhanced powers to deal with the really local issues that people care about.
Above them the whole of England should be run by unitary local authorities. It is unsustainable to have a situation in the North West for instance where Cheshire has four councils and Lancashire fourteen. The district/county model has always confused ratepayers and should have been swept away in 1974 at the time of the last reorganisation. This proposal would also deal with a major charge thrown against those of us who want a strategic tier for those parts of England that want it. The charge is that we would create more politicians. We would not. Hundreds of district councillors would be abolished. I don’t underestimate the political difficulty of combating the vested interests that will oppose this, but it should be tackled with courage.
The city regions have become embedded and have all party support. Elected mayors for the whole city regions would bring them the direct democracy and transparency that they sadly lack at the moment. However the City Regions do not cover the whole country. The priorities of major towns and whole swathes of suburban and rural England are excluded from the City Regions. Supporters of cities say outlying areas should become commuter dormitories for the cities. This is unacceptable. The Local Enterprise Partnerships do not have the scale to tackle the big challenge facing parts of England.
The challenge is this. Scotland will soon have powerful enhanced powers. London and the South East are on a different planet of prosperity. The other regions of England need strategic bodies to match Scotland and the South East. Here we encounter major problems. Regions are a dirty word to the Tories because they are the administrative divisions used by the European Union. The boundaries of regions also present problems. Cornwall does not want to be in a region with Gloucestershire. Oxford has nothing in common with Kent. Should Cumbria be in the North West or North East?
These identity issues play into the hands of centralising civil servants in London who are hostile to any devolution. They helped to prevent John Prescott giving real power to the North East in 2004 with the resulting defeat of the plan for an elected regional assembly. It is a major falsehood to suggest people rejected regionalism in 2004. They would have voted for it if it had meant real power.
We need the people’s consent to the regional map of England so the legislation should be permissive. So I would favour a Northern Council, an idea I will develop in a moment. The Midlands and East might want smaller strategic bodies. There could then be a tier of government covering the Thames Valley. The real South East could get together. Wessex could emerge once again and perhaps it is time to recognise Cornish identity.
Returning to my patch I would like to see a Northern Council. It would stretch from the Scottish Border to Hull and Crewe. It has the economy and population of some of the smaller states in Europe and should have powers to match. These would cover transport, health, strategic planning, skills, economic planning etc. They would get a block grant from London without strings and would benefit from resources currently going to Scotland as the Barnett Formula is replaced by the Scots raising their own taxes.
The Northern Council would be a democratic body with people elected from constituencies based on groups of Westminster seats.
I don’t want to go into the complexities of EVEL here. My solution would be for the designation of truly English legislation that could only be voted on by English MPs. There would be less of it than Labour fear, but they are right to demand that EVEL is conditional on a wider constitutional settlement.
Wales and Northern Ireland should get more devolved powers.
The House of Lords should be reformed once and for all. It should have 75% of its members elected from the English Regions. 20% should be appointed to allow for doctors, scientists, engineers to give their expertise . Such people might be reluctant to stand for office. 5% should be reserved for the faith communities.
We live in a time when the old party structure is crumbling. The voting system needs to reflect this. All elections for local, regional and national government should be by single transferable vote.
These changes can be dismissed as too radical and too challenging for vested political interests. The alternative is to patch up our existing arrangements against a background of growing alienating of the people from their politicians.
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