The UK is one of the most centrally controlled countries in the developed world. Over 40 years, Westminster has gradually removed more and more powers and decisions from individuals and councils and placed them in the largesse of ministers in Whitehall. Thus we now endure such spectacles as a Secretary of State answering questions on Newsnight regarding local hospitals in Worcestershire. The proliferation of wasteful quangos, standards boards and auditors is a direct consequence of the centre removing autonomy from the localities, and needing to build a vast and unwieldy infrastructure to manage this centralised state. And as local councils have been disempowered, so individuals have become increasingly disenchanted with the wildly ambitious promises of political parties which do not share local priorities, but commit to expensive and probably unachievable national schemes which – if the last Labour government is anything to go by – more often than not come to nothing.
I believe this accumulation of power in Westminster is deeply harmful to individual freedom of choice, because it tends to remove decisions from where they should be made – at the closest possible local level – and gives them to ministers with an understandably tenuous grasp of the localities they are making decisions about.
The thing is, Westminster recognises the problem, and the solution, but lacks the appetite or principle to actually deliver it. In an article in the Guardian on 17th February 2009, David Cameron made three commitments which were almost enough to make me flirt with the idea of voting Conservative for the first time in my life. They were:
- Giving local people more power (in a rather vague and undefined way, but the sentiment was sound)
- Giving local councils more power and responsibility (with a promise of a “general power of competence”)
- Elected mayors for major cities
But, as with all Prime Ministers, promises made in opposition to give away power suddenly become less attractive once you are in power yourself. And so we’ve heard very little about the first commitment, and the third was pretty comprehensively rejected in the 2012 elections (having received little visible support from the Prime Minister).
That leaves the second commitment, which has been followed through in the 2011 Localism Act, which does, indeed, include a general power of competence to councils. One out of three is something, I suppose.
If you read the restrictions and regulations around the general power of competence, though, it’s clear that while it meets the letter of what the Prime Minister promised, it’s a long way from radical decentralisation. In particular, although it allows for council tax referendums, it does so at the discretion of the Westminster Secretary of State. And furthermore, there are significant powers for the Secretary of State to intervene over and above his power in previous legislation:
Limits on the use of the power
The Secretary of State will be able to set conditions on use of the general power, an extension of central control in comparison with the well-being powers. This may be intended as a reserve power, to be available should any ‘speculative activities’ risk going too far. In any event, the Secretary of State will have a reserve power to intervene and place limits on what authorities can do
Anyone familiar with Harcourt’s rousing definition of Liberalism can smell the stench of despotic government in the Secretary of State’s “reserve powers”:
Liberty does not consist in making others do what you think right. The difference between a free Government and a Government which is not free is principally this—that a Government which is not free interferes with everything it can, and a free Government interferes with nothing except what it must. A despotic Government tries to make everybody do what it wishes; a Liberal Government tries, as far as the safety of society will permit, to allow everybody to do as he wishes.
If radical decentralisation is to mean anything more than tinkering with existing laws, it should be a wholesale restoration of powers taken by Westminster back to localities – the kind of really big reform that Cameron has shied away from. This would include areas such as housing, health, welfare, transport, integration of refugees and immigrants, care for the elderly, culture and tourism, public utilities, policing and local taxation. In short, the kind of powers devolved to the Edinburgh and Cardiff assemblies should become the norm for county councils and city councils. Westminster should operate on the principle that the only decisions taken by the British Parliament should involve genuinely national issues such as foreign policy, defence, international trade and transportation and the normalisation of justice. And these principles also apply to our involvement in the EU. Nick Clegg’s insights in The Orange Book remain troublingly true – for all it remains a worthy institution, it’s far too concerned with interfering in local decisions (in contravention of its own rules on subsidiarity) than in tackling issues like international terrorism.
I wouldn’t advocate regional assemblies – for me, like the Edinburgh and Cardiff parliaments, they’re an unnecessary additional tier of government that distances people from the decisions that affect them – but re-empower the existing county council structure, with control over much of its own funding. The Scandinavian countries have adopted this kind of local government to great effect, in particular Denmark, which is more decentralised than most federal states, enjoys a greater transparency in government, with spending much more closely aligned to the priorities of voters.
In the 21st Century, I believe that radical decentralisation should be a primary aim. It’s aligned with technological developments which are making it easier to decentralise knowledge and information, and it offers an opportunity to re-engage individuals with the political process by ensuring that their elected representatives are accessible, and have a shared investment in developing and delivering in the locality.
In power, David Cameron has abandoned his commitment to radical decentralisation. I’d like to see the Liberals and Labour take up the cause, and for the first time in a generation, genuinely return power to the people.