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YDM’s submission to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in Parliament is holding an inquiry looking at the future of devolution in the United Kingdom, in the light of the Scottish referendum result.  Among the questions the Committee will be considering are how devolution should be taken forward in Scotland, and whether England, Wales and Northern Ireland should be offered the level of devolution that has been discussed in relation to Scotland. Nigel Sollitt, Chair of YDM, has made the submission below.

Deadline for written submissions is Thursday 23 October 2014

Devolution, But Which Devolution?

Submission to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

Regarding:

The Future of Devolution after the referendum.

Written by Nigel Sollitt, Chair, Yorkshire Devolution Movement

Introduction:

The referendum on Scottish independence has put beyond doubt that these isles are discontent with the current system of centralism under Westminster and Whitehall. The degree to which that discontent is felt is demonstrated by the fact that, despite Scotland already having devolved powers to a greater extent than any other part of the UK, independence was only averted by the way just over 5% of voters voted.

Had it not been for the late promise from London of more far reaching powers if Scotland remained in the Union, that small percentage of voters may well have voted the other way and the Union be heading for dissolution. Since that promise was made, the call for greater devolved powers has been echoed by Wales and Northern Ireland who, like Scotland, have also enjoyed devolution since 1999.

But what of England?

Democratic Imbalance:

Surely no right-minded person would dispute that the United Kingdom should be a union of equals and that that must include democratic equality? Yet, the UK is void of such equality and has been for the past fifteen years! Of the four Government Regions of the UK to enjoy devolution, Scotland has more decision making powers than any whilst N Ireland and Wales have more than London which, in turn, is the only Government Region of England to be devolved at all. England is the only one of the four home nations to be without devolved power and of the twelve Government Regions of the UK, all eight without devolution are in England!

Far from democratic equality, this demonstrates a UK with four tier devolution ranging from no devolution to something approaching devo-max. For the UK to be a union of equals all its citizens must enjoy equal opportunity, not only to devolved power but to similar degrees of devolved power. As things stand, the imbalance is such that whereas all other nations and Government Regions of the UK can make representations on this matter through their respective devolved seats of power, England and all but one Government Region of England have no devolved seat of power to do even that.   These imbalances must be corrected!

Correcting the Imbalances:

A starting point in correcting the imbalances is to look at the parts of the UK that already are devolved and identify which empowers and represents people most. Once that has been identified, UK-wide democratic equality could be achieved either by replicating it throughout the UK or by scrapping it where it currently exists and replacing it with something else throughout the UK.

With the current public demand for greater devolution of powers, any government proposing to replace existing devolution with something offering less would be a government committing political suicide. The only realistic choice therefore is to offer to the whole UK either the best powers and representation that currently exists or something that offers even greater powers and representation. To do neither would allow the democratic inequality within the UK to remain unresolved and the disharmony that that causes among the British people to continue!

As already mentioned, of the four devolved seats of power that exist within the UK, the Scottish Parliament enjoys by far the greatest degree of powers. Being a directly elected parliament, the model in Scotland gives transparency and accountability. Its MPs are chosen by the people to represent them in an open arena rather than to make decisions behind closed doors. As the people of Scotland identify themselves as ‘Scottish’, the ‘Scottish’ Parliament also represents their identity.

None of the other three devolved seats of power in the UK offers greater powers and representation in any respect than that enjoyed in Scotland and each of them falls short of Scottish powers and representation in at least one respect. The standard of devolution enjoyed in Scotland is therefore clearly the best that currently exists in the UK therefore, as a minimum, is the standard that should be enjoyed by all citizens of the UK in order to resolve the current democratic imbalance.

But is it the best standard to adopt?

Alternative Levels and models of devolution:

Whereas there is no ambiguity whether referring to Scotland, N Ireland or Wales either as a nation or as a Government Region because each is both, England is one of the four UK nations but comprises nine of the twelve Government Regions. ‘Regional devolution’ therefore means something quite different to England than it does to any other UK nation. In addition to national or regional devolution, the case of England is further complicated by proposals for devolution to traditional counties; sub-regional level such as districts or City Regions and to super-regional level such as ones based on the pre-Norman Earldoms of England (Wessex, Mercia etc). Then there are the models of devolution that have been proposed: These include directly elected parliaments/assemblies, directly elected mayors, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), Combined Authorities and Empowered Local Authorities.

Comparing the Alternatives to Devolution in Scotland:

To compare the alternatives to devolution in Scotland we need to compare them in terms of the identified aspects and various models & levels of devolution:

Degree of Power:

Scotland has the power to pass both primary and secondary legislation on all matters except foreign affairs, defence, immigration, constitution and social security. Unlike devolution elsewhere in the UK, Scotland also has limited tax-raising powers that were recently extended by the Scotland Act 2012. It is inconceivable that powers of such quantity, variety and magnitude could be dealt with in any arena other than a parliament or assembly. If they could, the need for a UK Parliament to deal only with the reserved matters must be at least questionable and the need for the current devolved parliaments/assemblies even more so! So to achieve democratic equality purely on the basis of ‘degree of power’, England must also have parliament(s)/assemblies either at national level or at sub-national level (e.g. each region/traditional county, super region etc) in order to deal with that degree of power.

Transparency, Accountability and Representation:

Neither LEPs, Combined Authorities, Empowered Local Authorities or City Regions would offer the transparency, accountability or representation that is enjoyed by the people of Scotland. Each of these models has varying combinations of the following shortcomings: decisions made behind closed doors, decisions made by people who have not been chosen by the public they serve and decisions made for which no-one is clearly accountable. In the Scottish model, on the other hand, MPs are directly elected by the people they serve and they represent them in an open arena where accountability is clear and appropriate action can be seen to have been taken where necessary. Parliaments/assemblies are therefore clearly the best model to achieve democratic equality in terms of transparency, accountability and representation.

Representing Identity:

As the people of Scotland identify themselves as ‘Scottish’, the ‘Scottish’ Parliament directly represents their identity. The identities of the Welsh, Northern Irish and Londoners are also directly represented by their respective parliaments/assemblies. This is because devolution was offered to each of them at the level that reflects their identity.

Identities are determined by centuries of heritage and history; they already exist. It should therefore be the identities of people determining regions, not regions imposing non-identities upon people. Not paying due consideration to identity has already met with opposition, particularly from those parts where identities are strongest. For example, in Cornwall, 50,000 people petitioned the government for a Cornish Assembly and the Cornish have successfully campaigned for National Minority status. In Yorkshire the Yorkshire Ridings Society was founded in protest of the boundary changes of the Local Government Act 1972, ‘Humberside’ and ‘Cleveland’ have been abolished due to local opposition, permanent signs have been positioned to mark the boundary of the traditional county, Saddleworth Parish Council refuses to yield the White Rose as its symbol despite coming under a Lancashire authority and the people of Yarm are currently battling to return to Yorkshire administration from Stockton Borough Council.

To achieve democratic equality in this respect then, in deciding the level to which power is devolved, due consideration must be given to the identities of people and the level must reflect those identities as much as viably possible.

English Parliament:

An English Parliament would obviously have all the attributes and capabilities of the Scottish Parliament. However, from a regional perspective, to devolve from Westminster to an English parliament would simply be to replace one remote, central seat of power with another. It would still leave London as the only devolved Region within England. Also, there are very strong identities within England such as ‘Cornish’ and ‘Yorkshire’ which an ‘English’ parliament would fail to represent in the same way as the ‘Scottish’ Parliament represents ‘Scots’ or the ‘London’ Assembly represents ‘Londoners’.   (See ‘Representing Identity’ above)

Super Regions:

Whilst devolving to super regions may provide some improvement in some respects compared to an English parliament, whether that would be sufficient to be acceptable by the people of any super region proposed will depend on how the various parts of that super region relate to it. For example, if a parliament for the North of England sited in Manchester was proposed, the Yorkshire people are likely to reject it for not representing their ‘Yorkshire’ identity, the people of Northumberland are likely to reject it for it being sited too remotely and the people of Liverpool are likely to reject it for being sited in a rival city.

Regions and traditional counties:

At ‘Representing Identity’, above, the point was made that to achieve democratic equality in that respect, the boundaries of regions should be determined, as much as viably possible, by the identities of people rather than false identities being imposed on people by politicians deciding the regional boundaries.   Some regions created by the Government may either sit well with the identity of the people within them or their people have insufficient sense of regional identity to be particularly concerned. Other regions created by the Government, however, do not sit well with the identities of people at all and they would choose boundaries for their region that exactly matched the boundaries of their traditional county.

This is certainly the case in both Yorkshire and Cornwall and even the Lincolnshire folk in the ‘Yorkshire and the Humber’ region would prefer to leave that region to be with the rest of their county-folk.   So in order to achieve democratic equality in respect of representing identity, the boundaries of the regions themselves need to be revised in order to accommodate that equality.

Like either an English parliament or a super region Parliament, parliaments/assemblies for regions/traditional counties would offer all the attributes and capabilities of the Scottish Parliament.   However, unlike them, regional/traditional county parliaments/assemblies would also bring democratic equality by resolving the issues of remote, central seats of power; London being the only devolved region within England and, representing identities (given that the regions are revised as discussed above).

One final consideration here: With London being an established devolved region since its people voted in favour of a devolved assembly in 1998, regional devolution in England is already underway!

LEPs, Combined Authorities and Empowered Local Authorities:

None of these are adequate to deal with the same quantity, variety or magnitude of powers that the Scottish Parliament deals with. (See ‘Degree of Power’ above). None would offer the transparency, accountability or representation of parliaments or assemblies. (See ‘Transparency, Accountability & Representation’ above). Neither do they represent the identity of people. (See ‘Representing Identity’ above)

City Regions:

It would be absolutely impossible for City Regions to correct the democratic inequality that currently exists. England is not a city nor is it made up entirely of cities! In fact, by far the majority of communities either in England or in any of its regions and counties are not cities. Therefore this model of devolution would exclude by far the majority of communities from devolved empowerment and representation. Far from improving matters, devolving power via city regions would cause disharmony between communities within counties and regions in addition to the disharmony that already exists between the UK’s nations or Government Regions. Also, it is City Regions where elected Mayors might be an option, however, the idea of elected Mayors was recently resoundingly rejected!

Conclusions So Far:

On considering all the foregoing points, the following conclusions are drawn:

1. There are currently democratic imbalances between the various parts of the UK at both national and regional levels in terms of degree of power and representing identity.

2.  In correcting those imbalances, democratic equality in terms of transparency, accountability & representation should also be achieved.

3.  The model and level of devolution most capable of delivering democratic equality in terms of degree of power, representing identity and transparency, accountability & representation is devolved parliaments/assemblies at regional level.

4.  Regions should be determined by the identities of people, not imposed on people by politicians and therefore the boundaries of existing government regions need to be revised, particularly where identities are strongest, such as the traditional counties of Yorkshire and Cornwall.

5.  The degree of powers that are devolved to each region of the UK should be consistent throughout the UK.

Devolution Beyond and Before the Regions: 

The delivery of devolution should not stop at regional level, it should filter right through to the lowest level that needs it. The basic principle must be to devolve appropriate powers to the appropriate level. The introduction of a regional assembly gives the opportunity to review local government at the same time to ensure that happens.

This would allow issues at each level from individual settlements to the region as a whole to be dealt with without needing to seek permission or go cap in hand to a higher level.

As Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are both nations and Government Regions of the UK, this model could be applied to all the UK nations. In the case of England only, a national parliament would not be required as, between UK and regional parliaments, there would be very little, if anything, for an English Parliament to deal with.

A new Magna Carta? Critique – Submission to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

By Charles Ashton

Introduction

Does the UK need a codified Constitution?

The current constitutional settlement of the UK is largely based on the principle of Parliamentary Supremacy. This supremacy, I would suggest, was envisioned by our forefathers as being supremacy over the Monarchy in order to prevent a return to the largely absolutist system which existed prior to the Civil Wars of the 17th century.

This situation begs the very real question, “who controls parliament”? Traditionalists would, no doubt, argue that the people control parliament through the mechanism of regular elections. The lie of this is exposed by the current UK Government extending the life of the current Welsh Assembly, by one year, to 2016 on the questionable grounds that Welsh voters would be confused by having to vote in both General and Assembly elections on the same day.

This single act is not only an extremely worrying indication of the intellectual disdain with which our political class views the voting public but also of the ease with which the democratic process of the UK is able to be subverted insofar as not only were the public not consulted in advance, neither was parliament, the Home Secretary simply made an Order and the Welsh people were stripped of their democratic rights, in relation to the Welsh Assembly, for a period of 12 months. That the Welsh Assembly Government colluded in this subversion of democracy merely serves to show that this “fast and loose” attitude to democracy pervades at least two tiers of government in the UK.

Any written Constitution worth having would act to curtail the, currently unlimited, power of government, at all levels, in the UK. I have given, above, one example of how our current settlement, based on Parliamentary Supremacy, is not only open to abuse but has actually been used to abuse the rights of the people. So far, in our history, the UK has been lucky, relative to some countries, in that the principle of supremacy has not been too badly abused over the centuries but I, for one, would not like to take the risk and believe that the UK requires a written and codified Constitution which limits the power of government and sets out the rights and responsibilities of all UK citizens and residents.

If so, which of the three options offers the best way forward?

The Proposed Constitutional Code

The main problem with adopting a Constitutional Code, of the type proposed in the Committee’s Report “A New Magna Carta” is the simple fact that it lacks statutory authority and as such could, potentially, be completely ignored by the government at any given time without any legal redress being available to the people of the United Kingdom.

In this regard a Constitutional Code completely misses the point of a Constitution, which surely is to place limits on the power of government, at all levels, thus allowing the population of a country to maintain control over their country and destiny.

The Proposed Constitutional Consolidation Act

The Constitutional Consolidation Act, as proposed by the Committee’s Report, has a number of flaws, not least of which is its sheer length which, at 371 pages, almost certainly protects it from the danger of ever actually being read by anyone other than the most dedicated of political anoraks.

As well as the aforementioned issue of length there is the issue of the turgid and technocratic language in which it is written which, I would suggest, may well protect it from ever being understood by any layman unfortunate enough to find themselves reading the thing.

The very idea that a realistically workable Constitutional Settlement could be achieved simply by stapling together any number of existing statutes and government manuals, which virtually no one outside of parliament is even aware exist, is at best delusional and at worst a deliberate effort to prevent the British people from ever being able to limit the power of the state.

Another serious flaw in the concept of a Constitutional Consolidation Act is the very simple fact that it is merely an Act of Parliament and as such is able to be modified, or even repealed, by an equally simple Act of Parliament at any time in the future thus lacking one of the crucial elements of a true Constitution, the principle that the Legislature and Government, at all levels, are bound by it.

The Proposed Written Constitution

A fully fledged, written Constitution is, by definition, be the only rational option for a lasting Constitutional Settlement in the United Kingdom.

Having said that, the document proposed by the Committee’s Report suffers from the same fatal flaws, of length, 109 pages, and turgid, technocratic language, as the proposed Constitutional Consolidation Act which would very probably protect it too from ever being read and understood by the average person in the street. Such a

document gives the impression of an attempt by the political class to muddy the waters, as it were, with regard to the powers of the state.

What needs to be included in/excluded from your favoured option, if you have one?

A written Constitution

The most enduring and arguably most successful, written Constitution on the planet is 20 pages long and includes 26 Amendments since its creation in 1787. I refer, of course, to the Constitution of the United States of America.

The key, I believe, to the enduring success of this document is its pure simplicity which allows every US citizen to understand not only how their government is structured and works at all levels but also the limitations placed on the state, by the Constitution, regarding individual rights and freedoms. It is this simplicity that allows any 10 year old American child to be able to name and explain, at the very least, the first 10 amendments or Bill of Rights, to the Constitution with confidence and the knowledge that those rights cannot be removed or changed without the expressed consent of the American people.

Any fully fledged Constitution must, by definition, be above the government and only able to be amended or abandoned by the expressed will of the people. This being the case it must naturally follow that it must be created by the people rather than by government thus the first thing I would exclude from any written Constitution for the UK is the political class, by which I mean holders of elected office at any level of government and Civil Servants from any level of government, from any involvement in its development.

For a written Constitution for the UK to be an enduring success it must not only enshrine rights and freedoms but also resolve all constitutional questions, such as devolution/Federalisation, powers/limits of the state, elected/appointed House of Lords, directly elected/current system PM/DPM, in full and final settlement thereby ending the constant drip drip drip of constitutional debate the UK has been subjected to since devolution in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Devolution/Federalisation

There are, I would submit, two great flaws in the way devolution has been implemented in the UK. The first, and most glaring, is simply that England, and thus the vast majority of the UK population, have been completely left out of the process and secondly there is no consistency to which powers are devolved and which remain with Westminster leading to confusion as to what different levels of government are responsible for.

Commonly known as the Westlothian question I do not feel the need to explain the issues involved in the question of the lack of English devolution however there are a number of options available to resolve this question.

Firstly, the current devolution settlements for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland could be unpicked and replaced with a system that has MP’s from the 4 Home Nations sitting in their respective Assemblies for 3 weeks of the month, dealing with devolved matters, and spending 1 week of the month sitting as a UK parliament dealing with issues affecting the whole country. Due to the requirement to unpick the current devolution settlements this option would, in all likelihood, be politically untenable due largely to the perceived reversal of the current devolution settlements. It would also raise questions as to the standing, in the UK parliament, of the members who hold the post of First Minister in the devolved assemblies and their potential subordination, at the national level, to someone who is junior to them at the devolved level. This second issue could of course be avoided by way of a directly elected PM who, as the Executive arm of government, would be wholly separate from the legislature but this would then raise issues of Executive succession should the PM be unable to continue in office for any reason. On the whole this would potentially be an overly complex and constitutionally difficult option despite its initial appearance of simplicity.

The second option, which has recently come to prominence, is to devolve powers to larger cities around the UK. This option contains, without exception, all the flaws of the current devolution settlement in that it fails to deliver devolved power to vast numbers of the English population who live outside the main centres and, as yet, there does not appear to be any agreement that each City would have the same powers or what those powers would be.

Option 3 would be to create a devolved English parliament, completely separate from Westminster, to administer England only affairs. Whilst this would appear, on the face of it, the simplest and most workable solution, being that it retains the integrity of the 4 Home Nations as distinct geographical entities, such a settlement would not be without its problems. For example, what may be right for the people of Cornwall may not be right or desirable for the people of Yorkshire. The other extreme of this argument, that each county be cast adrift on the sea of devolution, is, of course, wrought with even greater problems. Whilst there are some counties which, due to their size, population and resources, could no doubt quite happily thrive under devolved administrations there are others who would equally struggle.

This brings us to option 4, a Federal settlement based loosely, as a starting point to be refined as far as possible by negotiation, on the pre-Norman Kingdoms of England with Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland making up the other 3 Federal Regions of the UK to a total of 10 Federal Regions. I would suggest retaining Westminster as the seat of a much reduced Federal government simply because of the location of the Departments of State.

Powers/Limits of the State

Obviously there would potentially be a fair amount of negotiation over what powers would be devolved and what powers would be retained by the Federal government and as such I would suggest a good place to begin such negotiations would be to look to what powers the Scottish Parliament holds.1 The only pre-condition required for this part of a written Constitution is that all regions making up the Federal UK must hold the same powers.

Whilst it would be for the individual regions to decide the makeup of their own assemblies, within UK wide Constitutional minimums, it would be for the regions, via a Constitution, to also set the number of MPs and frequency of Federal elections. I would suggest a maximum of 250 Lower House MPs elected, if I may borrow from the US Constitution, every 2 years. Roughly 1 MP per 245,000 head of population would deliver just under 250 MPs based on the current UK population.

Elected/Appointed House of Lords

The House of Lords is a British institution with a long and illustrious history. It was the first of our national institutions to place limits on the power of the Monarchy, with the Magna Carta in 1215, and as such is arguably the Grandfather of western democracy. However, sadly, I feel its time has passed and it must, as a legislative chamber, now be consigned to the mists of history.

Over the last century, starting with the Parliament Act 1911, successive governments have limited the power of the Lords, created Life Peerages, removed all but a handful of Hereditary Peers from the House and attempted to create an elected Upper House. This blind tinkering has created an Upper House rammed to the gunwales with retired MPs, party hacks, political donors and other assorted fellow travellers whose only rational for being there is to stack the chamber in their party’s favour.

The LibDems attempted to create an elected Upper House with 300 members, elected for 15 years each with no right of re-election and thus no electoral accountability. To say that this idea was ill-conceived is to stretch my capacity for kindness to breaking point.

There is no doubt that a Federal UK, with a written Constitution, requires an elected Upper House however its predominately revising role means that its numbers only need be small, 10 Senators from each region of the UK with 2 from the Federal Capitol making a total of 102, elected for 6 years with 1/3 up for re-election every 2 years at the same time as MP elections.

Directly elected/current system PM/DPM

A major flaw in the way the UK central government functions is that whilst in theory the Executive and the Legislature are separate, given that the Monarch theoretically holds executive power, in practice it is the PM that holds this power. This is an important flaw in our system as the PM is also the individual who controls the legislature resulting in a complete absence of the separation of powers, the theory of which forms the basis of our system of government.

Being that it is unlikely that handing practical executive power back to the Monarch would ever be politically viable the only option left, to ensure separation of powers, is a directly elected PM/DPM, standing on a ticket in the same way as POTUS/VPOTUS, thus ensuring that the legislature is free to hold executive power to account.

Foreign Treaties

Any UK written Constitution must make it illegal for any UK government to make any treaty with a foreign power, or powers, having the effect of transferring any powers overs the laws, government, judiciary or people of the UK to any foreign power or supranational body or organisation. Any existing laws having that effect must be, by definition, repealed by the creation of a UK written Constitution.

Written by the people

In any written Constitution it must be implicit that it is a full and final Constitutional Settlement, amendable only with great difficulty and only at the behest of the people. It must be a document easily read and understood by all those subject to its provisions and assured rights under its protection. In view of this it is necessary to exclude any elected, or previously elected, politician from the process of forming a written UK Constitution thereby ensuring that the protections, rights and limits on state power act as a protection for the people and not a mechanism for controlling them.

 

Charlie would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this piece so please post them below – YDM

Lib Dem Minister: ‘We cannot ignore the 5 million people in Yorkshire who have the same rights to local democracy and empowerment’

Liberal Democrat MP (and the Minister of State for Schools), David Laws, writes an interesting piece in The Guardian (2 October).  He says:

 If we agree it is right to give the 5 million people in Scotland and 3 million people in Wales a greater say over their local services, then we cannot ignore the 5 million people in Yorkshire who have the same rights to local democracy and empowerment. There is a clear and compelling argument to take power away from politicians in Westminster and bureaucrats in Whitehall and give more power and control to the cities, counties and regions of England.

That is the closest any senior Liberal Democrat has come to recognising Yorkshire as a whole (and not merely City Regions) in the same context as devolution to Wales and Scotland. This is, of course, encouraging but remains at odds with his Leader who continues his obsession with City Regions. What is still not clear is whilst suggesting the laudable aim of a bottom-up approach from the people themselves in terms of what devolution they want, there is no mention of the process for this to happen. Perhaps this will come clearer this week during the Lib Dem Conference.

The full article is below.

 

Labour put aside partisanship on constitutional reform. Now the Tories must do the same

Any new body charged with giving English MPs a veto over English laws must be appointed based on proportional representation

The recent referendum on Scottish independence has rightly reopened the longstanding debate about how we devolve greater power, responsibility and resources to the UK’s constituent nations. As a Liberal Democrat who believes firmly in localism, this is a debate that I wholeheartedly welcome.

The Scottish people sent us a clear message a fortnight ago. They want change and they want it soon. So it is crucial that we do not renege on the pledges we made to the Scottish people and Nick Clegg has been clear that those pledges must and will be honoured.

What we cannot do, however, is focus on just one piece of the constitutional jigsaw. Alongside further devolution to Scotland, we must continue to make speedy progress in implementing the Silk Commission proposals for Wales and in strengthening the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. And we need to consider how we can bring about further devolution to local areas in England – a cause that this government has enthusiastically championed, but which has not yet run its course.

And as we push power down from Westminster to the nations and communities of the UK, so we need to address the other urgent reforms – to democratise the House of Lords, clean up party funding and engage voters – that will be needed if our political system is to regain public support.

That is why the Liberal Democrats are working in government to secure cross-party agreement for a constitutional convention to lead a national conversation about how we are governed. The convention would be made up of citizens and independent experts, who would consider these fundamental questions in detail, consult the wider public and make recommendations for a new constitution which would reflect our diverse and decentralised UK.

Devolution and localism must also go beyond Westminster. Up and down the country, including in my own constituency in Yeovil, citizens want change that reflects their local needs and circumstances. We cannot have a debate about devolving greater powers to nations without also considering how we give local areas more power. If we agree it is right to give the 5 million people in Scotland and 3 million people in Wales a greater say over their local services, then we cannot ignore the 5 million people in Yorkshire who have the same rights to local democracy and empowerment. There is a clear and compelling argument to take power away from politicians in Westminster and bureaucrats in Whitehall and give more power and control to the cities, counties and regions of England.

But we have learned from the ill-fated attempt of John Prescott not to impose a top-down process, which tells people they must be in an artificially drawn region – nobody in Yeovil wants to be told they must share local political decisions with Penzance. Instead the Liberal Democrats are pressing our coalition partners to allow people to decide which powers they want and at what level.

As we push power away from Westminster, we need to think carefully about the consequences for the way in which parliament goes about its business. In particular, we need to come up with an answer to the so-called “West Lothian” question about the rightful role of non-English MPs in making laws that only affect England.

Last year, a commission led by Sir William McKay considered this issue and recommended that there should be a new stage in the legislative process to ensure that laws that only affect England are approved by a majority of English MPs.

The McKay recommendation sets a clear path for government to follow, and follow it we now must. A grand committee of only English MPs (and Welsh where the legislation affects Wales too) should have the power to scrutinise and potentially veto draft legislation. This process would ensure that English voters can be sure that decisions that only affect England cannot be imposed on them by Scottish MPs.

But it is essential we do this in the right way. Every time Westminster has devolved powers in the past – to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and even London – it has insisted that the devolved authority that wields those powers be put together on the basis of proportional representation. This was done not because Labour or the Conservatives have any great love for fair votes – far from it. It was done because the architects of those devolution settlements understood that allowing one party to have an absolute majority in any new body with a mere 40% or even 35% of the vote would delegitimise it from the start.

What was right for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London is also right for England. Any new body charged with giving English MPs a veto over English laws must reflect the votes cast for each party in England at the previous general election. That is the only way to ensure it truly represents English opinion and is seen as legitimate by the people of England.

To do otherwise would be to allow for the possibility that a future coalition government, which received a majority of votes in both the UK and in England, could have its legislative agenda blocked by a party which secured little more than a third of English votes.

No doubt some in the Conservative party would like to introduce a new process that gave them a significant inbuilt party advantage, based on the quirk of constituency results in England. But to do so would be to ride roughshod over the views of the many voters across England – a majority in every general election in my lifetime – who voted for parties other than the Conservative.

It is to the last Labour government’s credit that it put aside narrow partisan interest when renewing our constitution. The Conservatives must now do the same.

At last – Humberside to disappear from Royal Mail database

Excellent news as reported on the ITV Calendar News website today. It is a change YDM has long supported.

Humberside removed from Royal Mail database

Campaigners are celebrating after a long-running battle with Royal Mail to have ‘Humberside’ removed from use. The ceremonial county ceased to exist in 1996, but letters have continued to be postmarked with the term. ‘Humberside’ has been removed from Royal Mail’s address database.

Letters being posted 
Royal Mail has removed Humberside from its database Credit: Press Association

Royal Mail can confirm that the technical change required to suppress the automatic reference to North and South Humberside as a Former Postal County on PAF products supplied to customers was implemented from July as part of a pilot scheme.

This now means that no Former Postal County details will be shown for all Postcodes previously tagged with a Humberside reference.

The actual change may take a little time to filter down through address lists as its implementation is dependent upon how frequently customers and businesses update their own data.

There may still be some instances where addresses may have North or South Humberside appearing due to organisations either not updating their databases or preferring to continue to use the locality which is beyond our control.

– Royal Mail spokesperson

Devo-Meagre Measures Makes Yorkshire something something …*

First time contributor, Councillor Kevin Rodgers from Doncaster, writing in a personal capacity, wants to encourage a ‘great debate’ on Yorkshire’s future.

 

Devo-Meagre Measures Makes Yorkshire something something …*

The two year long independence referendum in Scotland and its climatic crescendo to a No vote, has led to reflections elsewhere in this United Kingdom about how we go about the business of governance. Last Friday Englishmen (and women) who were constitutionally speaking abed awoke and though themselves accursed they did not have a referendum, and held their … well, lets say they found themselves wanting in the devolution stakes**. Unless they lived in Greater London.

In Yorkshire the issue of regional governance which disappeared off the map a decade ago has come back into contention with a variety of different views on how this can be achieved. Looking back ten years ago at the debate around the proposed English regional assemblies I can recall two things – a Yorkshire MP speaking at a party event in Leeds asking members what we’d like to see the Assembly do, and a wise old councillor who rightly identified that the proposed assemblies would draw powers up from local councils rather than down from Westminster. The assemblies were then an unclear and unpalatable receipe which were roundly rejected by the North East and were buried.

A decade later and the monster turnout in the referendum in Scotland demonstrates the depth and breadth that the Yes and No campaigns achieved which reached all levels of society and engaging voters in a way in which other campaigns can only dream of. It was the very polar opposite of the very staid debate over English Regional government ten years ago – and in my view there were two key differences: to have something at stake, and to go way beyond party lines.

The gravity of the question – how Scotland would be governed for all time – created a serious proposition to be debated with competing claim and counter claim from both the Yes and No campaigns. From outside Scotland we could observe the ‘Air War’ through the national media, but what we could not easily see was the meetings in cities, towns, and villages across Scotland where the question of independence was thoroughly exercised. What drove the number of people to pile into community centres to hear the arguments was simply that there was something to gained or lost that was tangible and mattered. The debate ten years ago on Regional Assemblies never elicited a response beyond a few meetings that a very narrow audience attended. Posing a serious question is absolutely key to generating a thorough and proper debate that people will want to participate in.

The independence debate in Scotland also reached beyond party lines as political partisans had to put aside their normal rivalries to either defend or break the union. But more than this – beyond mere party lines – was the ability of the Yes and No campaigns to reach a vast variety of groups across communities, interest groups, and work places. From the board room to the shop floor of business; through public, private, third and faith sectors; all the many parts of the great machine that makes up Scottish society were reached in the great debate. The turnout in the referendum demonstrates how far beyond simple party lines the debate penetrated.

The delivery of Devo-Max following the No vote will bring the constitutional question of the Asymmetric nature of devolution in the UK into sharp focus. As the General Election approaches there is a danger that the debate descends into English Votes for English Laws versus City Region Devolution – or to be more precise the Conservative view versus the Labour view. If the debate gets stuck in that rubric I fear that further progress to a proper considered view of how power and resources are distributed in England will be limited and difficult. The breadth and depth we have observed in the independence debate in Scotland needs to happen across the counties of England. But it needs to break out of the Westminster narrative.

There are less than 200 days before the next general election and it is likely that only a general principle on English devolution will emerge in the aftermath of the promised Devo-Max legislation. If the people of Yorkshire are to begin the process of recasting the County’s relationship with Westminster it cannot be on the same limited terms as ten years ago. Instead it is up to our own civic society, at all levels, to take a leaf from the Scottish experience and to ask our own searching questions to encourage a great debate over our own future within the broader settlement in a newly united kingdom.

* apologies to Stephen King and Homer Simpson

** apologies to William Shakespeare

 

A letter in today’s Daily Telegraph – could it be put any better?

A letter in today’s Daily Telegraph – could it be put any better?

SIR – Having won more medals than most countries at the 2012 Olympic Games, and now restored to its rightful place as county cricket champions, for one region of the UK, devolution’s time has surely come.

Home rule for Yorkshire!

Mike Davison
Holywell, Huntingdonshire

Two views from the Conservative party on Yorkshire devolution

Two views from the Conservative party on Yorkshire devolution.

Firstly, an oped by Julian Smith, MP for Skipton and Ripon, aptly titled: Now it is Yorkshire’s turn to stand up for devolution.

Secondly, from Richard O’Callaghan, a Conservative activist in Leeds, who kindly agreed to us reproducing his excellent blog piece which first appeared on Conservativehome. (Sadly views not shared by too many as you will see by the subsequent comments which can be found here)

 

Richard O’Callaghan: Conservatives should embrace regional assemblies

So the Union lives to fight another day. It now falls to those of us who love our country and don’t want to see her become “one with Nineveh and Tyre” to make sure that the experience of the past few months, when Britain was on the brink of dissolution, is never repeated. Incremental reform will not be enough; only boldness will do.

Our political masters’ panicked promise of additional powers for Holyrood means that the question of a more equitable constitutional settlement for England can no longer be ducked. This is not only right in principle; it is essential for the future of the Union that England, and her mounting frustration that the West Lothian Question has so far elicited no answer, does not become a second front in the battle to breakup Britain.

The Future of England survey reveals that English attitudes towards Scotland have hardened during the course of the independence referendum campaign and we cannot take for granted that the threat to the Union will only ever come from north of the River Tweed. After all, who would have thought only a generation ago, when The Troubles were at their height, that Scotland, not Northern Ireland, would be the horse most likely to bolt from the British stable?

Without doubt, one of the chief drivers behind the ‘Yes’ vote in Scotland was disillusionment with Westminster politics. But as Bob Geldof said, speaking for the rest of Britain in Trafalgar Square:

“We’re all f**king fed up with Westminster”.

Disillusionment with the political establishment is just as acute in England (and Wales) as it is in Scotland, a fact attested by the rise in support for UKIP in all three countries. A change in the constitutional arrangements for England therefore must be seen as an opportunity not only to right a wrong in the post-devolution arrangements, but to change the way we do government and politics in this country for the better.

There are a number of responses to the English Question but the one I support – regional assemblies – is the model which traditionally, Conservatives have been most hostile towards.

First, though, let’s consider the alternatives: Whilst an all-England Parliament, as advocated by ConservativeHome, would satisfy England’s desire for an institutional expression of its national identity, it would not bring about any great change in her political culture.

Even if the new Parliament sits outside London, decisions over domestic affairs would still be taken in the same centralised way, with uniform solutions applied from Berwick to Land’s End. The same problem exists with the English-votes-for-English-laws option, favoured by the Prime Minister.

You can’t have an English legislature without an English executive; what right would a British Labour government have to make decisions if we had a majority Conservative Parliament or Grand Committee for England? This solution provides no closure to English grievances and I’d bet is simply storing up problems for the future.

Another alternative is the super-localist option, suggested by Daniel Hannan and recently, the think tank ResPublica. This regards counties and city regions as the most appropriate devolved units. My concern with this is that there simply isn’t the talent and level of political engagement to make devolved democracy at such a local level a success.

As regards the city regions proposal, it would be unfair to give devolved powers to, say, the Leeds and Manchester city regions whilst withholding them from Cumbria and North Yorkshire. Furthermore, those living in the towns around Manchester and Leeds identify themselves as Lancastrians and Yorkshiremen/-women, not as Mancunians and Loiners.

If there is a happy medium, it would seem to be found in the regions. Nine or ten provinces (a term which better suggests political entities than mere geographical areas) would each administer roughly the same number of people as the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

Opponents of regional assemblies argue that there is no appetite for them in England. But how do they know? No one’s ever really tried to sell the idea; New Labour made a hash of it and the people haven’t been properly exposed to the arguments. One referendum in one region ten years ago hardly counts as a final rejection of the idea.

That’s not to say the standard regions we currently have are the best. In many cases they fail to reflect local identities and realities on the ground. It would make more sense, for instance, to have assemblies for Yorkshire (without North Lincolnshire), Lancashire (incorporating Merseyside and Greater Manchester), and The Borders (Cumbria, Northumberland and Co. Durham).

Perhaps we could also resurrect the historic identities of Mercia (East and West), East Anglia and Wessex (the area of southern England that’s not quite the West Country and not quite the Home Counties).

This model of English provincial government would be in the best traditions of the Tory Party: more local decision-making resulting, thanks to the end of the subsidy stream from Westminster, in financial responsibility. I also believe it would lead to a blossoming of provincial civic culture, with provincial media, currently in long-term decline, resurgent as the most important political decisions would be taken at home.

For the UK as a whole, regional assemblies would solve the problem of what to do with the House of Lords (make it a representative body for the English provinces and British Home Nations) and allow for a badly-needed slimming down of Westminster, thereby dealing with the objection to regional assemblies on the grounds that they’ll create more politicians. For the Tory Party, this model offers the prospect of a regeneration of the party in the North and Midlands, with the establishment of provincial-level party organisation which would be more representative of the country as a whole.

In making the case for Britain in recent months, unionists have made great play of the benefits to the UK of “unity in diversity”; I see no reason why England shouldn’t likewise prosper from this principle.

 

New democracy for a new Yorkshire? – a personal view from east Leeds

Ian Martin, a first time blogger from Leeds, believes that we need to quickly decide what we want and then build coalitions to demand nothing less.
New democracy for a new Yorkshire? – a personal view from east Leeds
I struggled to get to sleep on Thursday night. The adrenaline kept me awake. Could it really be that Scottish teenagers debating politics on TV had given me the kind of sleeplessness that I normally only felt the night before the bad old days of Leeds Rhinos’ ill fated trips to Wembley? Eventually I gave in and switched on the coverage of Scotland’s vote to remain part of our Union. All day my mind continued to whirr with the implications and later that day I saw some interviews with shoppers in Leeds market on the teatime TV news. They worried that our part of this island taking control of our destiny in a similar way would mean the same old politicians grabbing more powers for themselves and costing the taxpayer more. But does it have to be this way? Wasn’t the real success of the referendum debate the way in which the people of Scotland started to reclaim their part of this island from those who had let them down?

I was excited by the way in which the Scottish referendum campaign engaged people in a discussion about feelings of powerlessness and how to regain democratic control over decisions about their lives made by a centralised and seemingly unaccountable London-centric elite. In particular, it convinced me that here too we must harness that energy to build democratic consent for directly elected governance as close as possible to the people and that has reserved powers not just to control budgets allocated from a federal (UK wide) level but also to raise and spend its own revenues.

As well as opportunities however, I felt that these developments also presented dangers. From above, there is a danger that the lessons of voters engaged by new, different and grassroots approaches to democratic engagement will be missed and an approach to devolution that most suits those who already hold power will be imposed on us. At a more local level, there is a danger that this energy for change will be exploited by UKIP and far right organisations who will try to divide communities by appealing to notions of identity based on accidents of birth. My fear for Yorkshire in particular is that our strong sense of cultural identity will become exclusive in nature – to me, governance must be based on anyone who lives there and be welcoming to anyone who wants to live there and make it a success.

For these reasons I believe that we need to quickly decide in each area what we want and then build coalitions in those areas to demand nothing less. The future governance of the UK must come up from the people and not simply be a continuation of our futures, including our system of governance, being determined by a London-centric establishment that has not well served those of us outside London’s commuter belt (nor the least powerful members of society within London itself). It must be a federal system that assumes power lies with the people and decisions should always be taken at the closest possible level to the people it affects. This means neighbourhoods/parishes, cities/districts and also representatives from all the regions sitting in place of an abolished House of Lords. It also means regional governance partially funded through the abolition of county and unitary authorities and given the success of Scottish democracy, I think those elections should be by proportional representation including the enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year olds.

Two further key demands must be that:

- We develop a federal system of governance for all of the the UK at the same time, recognising that people in Mansfield and Plymouth are just as disenfranchised from power as in Northern England and Cornwall. Equally those in East Anglia and the South-East should have the opportunity to be part of a London centred region if they prefer to maintain that relationship over more locally based structures. We must avoid the trap of undermining our democracy with equivalents of the West Lothian question and the envy of those in Northern England at the ability of those just north of the border to make decisions about the costs of personal care and higher education.

- We resist all moves towards an English parliament which by its very nature would concentrate even more power over areas far from London in the hands of those who have benefited most from our London-centric establishment. We must never allow the democratic rejection of a North East Assembly with no real powers to be used as an example of how people want England wide rather than regional governance. Scotland’s electorate were engaged by questions of governance with powers, everyone else in the UK should have the right to vote on bringing similar powers closer to a geographic population of a similar size.

Based on this, I think there are three options for my own area, Leeds, and I hope that in agreeing or disagreeing with my proposals it will also encourage people to think about what might be the preferred options for their own area:

Leeds City Region – This would seem to be the option most favoured by the current government and therefore would meet the least resistance in going forward. It also seems to be about the smallest, realistic size for governance of this nature and therefore the likeliest to be able to focus on an area’s specific needs (even though tensions between Leeds and Bradford in particular would need to be balanced). As the preferred option of government however, its implementation is therefore the most likely to be controlled from the centre on terms that suit the centre and would also be primarily based on existing structures controlled by the local establishment and of questionable democratic legitimacy (such as low voter turnout and non-elected ‘partnerships’). If this option were preferred, there are also difficult questions about what happens to the rest of Yorkshire (could it be a separate region based on York? Would Sheffield also be a viable city region?) or to the rest of the North (city regions based on Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle with separate regional governments for each of the rest of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Borders ie. Cumbria and North East?).

Yorkshire region – The Grand Depart of the Tour de France gave us an inspiring example of what can be achieved from within Yorkshire without a London lead and presented an open, positive, inclusive and internationalist vision of Yorkshire that could be embraced by a wide variety of civil society. It may not be as close to the people as a city region but there is an existing and widely felt sense of identity that could bind city and country together in a way that may not work in other existing government regions. This would clearly help in building popular support for regional governance that is demanded from below rather than imposed from above – notwithstanding the earlier concerns about an exclusive definition of Yorkshire identity. I could see both sides of why people in Grimsby and Scunthorpe would or wouldn’t want to be part of such a region. Obviously they should decide this for themselves and be welcomed if they wanted to join Yorkshire.

United North – The scale of governance uniting all three existing government regions in the North would make for a powerful body with the ability to bring about greater change than a city region or region on its own. There is clearly some sense of ‘Northern’ identity and of common interests that would make this a possibility from a popularity point of view but it would be the option most likely to lead to a new elitism distant from the people in its capital. Whilst Manchester would seem a considered choice, with Leeds putting forward its own claims, another option would be to look at the German balance of city specialisms – Manchester media and culture, Leeds legal and financial, Newcastle/Liverpool international trade and political power in Middlesbrough?

The Scottish referendum debate got me thinking about my area and how people in my area could start to make sure that more of the decisions that affect us are decided by people we elect to stay close to us, both literally and metaphorically. What do you want in your part of our island? How can we make sure that it is us and not the same tired old elites who lead the agenda? It will only happen if we make it happen.

ends.

Now is the time for all those who support a Yorkshire assembly to stand up and be counted

YDM Vice Chair, Stewart Arnold writes:

All the party leaders are making the right mood music about devolution to the English regions. For that we should be grateful. However, I am concerned that this commitment comes in the aftermath of an invigorating (for people) and sobering (for Westminster politicians)debate in Scotland. An important test will be in the weeks and months to come as Cameron, Miliband and Clegg get bogged down in delivering further powers to Holyrood and as the General Election next May beckons. It is beholden on all of us to keep the pressure on.

It’s also important that any plans for devolution involves a conversation with the people of Yorkshire at an early stage. The last thing we want is a one size fits all blue print created by a bureaucrat in Whitehall. If Scotland showed us anything it is that there is a willingness of people to engage in political issues as long as they feel their voice is being heard. Yorkshire should be no different.

So if devolution is on the table what form will it take? That still is up for discussion it seems. There is an eagerness for City Regions by some whilst a Yorkshire regional is casually dismissed. YDM, whilst welcoming the conversation that we are starting to have on devolution, nevertheless has a preferred option: a democratically elected, accountable assembly for the whole of Yorkshire.

The reasons why we see Yorkshire as a whole are well rehearsed and have been expanded on his blog in the past. Yorkshire is an identifiable community with definable borders going back hundreds of years. It has an incredibly diverse landscape, history and culture. It has been the home of some of the greatest writers in the English language. Its inventions have made an impact across the world. Some of the greatest companies in Britain made their start in Yorkshire. It has a huge sporting heritage (for example, finishing 12th in the 2012 Olympics medal count). It has a population of 5 million people, the same as Scotland and broadly in the same range as the Nordic states of Finland, Denmark and Norway. It has a flag, an emblem and a civic day. In short, Yorkshire is a country in miniature.

However, despite that diversity, industriousness and sense of community, Yorkshire performs badly. Yorkshire has some of the poorest areas in Northern Europe but as the successful hosting of the Tour de France showed we have the potential to do so much more. What we need is the ability to do things for ourselves, away from the dead hand of Westminster and Whitehall, and unleash the enormous potential which exists in ‘Gods Own County’. Something needs to change. It’s not about independence but about decision making powers closer to the people just as Scotland have had.

Yorkshire is also more than the sum of its parts: cities, towns, villages and countryside. That’s why City Regions don’t do it for us. (And that’s aside from the lack of democracy and transparency which City Regions and LEPs bring).

But in establishing an assembly for Yorkshire we don’t want just a replica of out-of-touch Westminster-style politics with its tribalism and dissembling. Nor do we want the assembly to be stuffed full of party hacks. What we want is a new way of doing our politics. New progressive thinking for all Yorkshire folk. For example, we would want to bring together the talents of people across the region; people with the calibre of a Gary Verity or a Jonny Mitchell or a Jessica Ennis-Hill or the thousands of others who make Yorkshire the amazing place it is to live.

Most importantly we want this to be a conversation with the people of Yorkshire. We need to harness some of the fantastic energy that was so prevalent in the Scottish referendum debate here in Yorkshire as we set out what sort of Yorkshire we want in the 21st century.

Now is the time for all those who support a Yorkshire assembly to stand up and be counted. So (unashamedly) as part of that, we will be publishing blogs and reproducing articles which promote the idea of a Yorkshire assembly as the way forward for devolution to God’s Own. To start off that process here is the piece in today’s Hull Daily Mail by the well respected political columnist, Angus Young.

 

‘Scottish referendum will reignite interest in John Prescott’s regional assemblies’

By Hull Daily Mail  |  Posted: September 19, 2014

preexxmain

No voters celebrate after Scotland rejected independence today. The huge turnout suggests there may be more interest in local devolution as championed by John Prescott , argues Angus Young

THE biggest winner in today’s Scottish referendum on independence is democracy.

Yesterday’s turnout was an astonishing 84.5%, peaking at 91% in some areas, the biggest in any kind of UK election in living memory.

The issue of Scotland’s future has triggered a level of public debate sadly lacking in recent national or local elections.

The past couple of months have also proved an interesting contrast to the events of ten years ago when voters just south of the border were given the chance to have their say on Lord Prescott’s devolution proposals.

His idea of creating directly elected regional assemblies was road-tested in the North East where the then Labour Government believed it had the best opportunity of securing support.

Instead, it was emphatically rejected with 77.9 per cent voting against in a 49 per cent turnout.

At the time, critics of the Prescott model had a field day.

They claimed it would create toothless talking shops and, worse still, another expensive tier of government with more politicians taking their seats on yet another gravy train.

Those arguments appeared to strike a chord in the North East while the then Deputy Prime Minister’s talk of devolving decision-making powers and funding from Whitehall became lost in the noise.

The resounding “no” vote prompted the Government to shelve plans for a similar referendum in the Yorkshire and Humber region, as well as the North West.

That loss of nerve denied people here the chance to have their say on quite fundamental local governance issues.

A decade later, one of the positive subjects to emerge from the Scottish referendum campaign has been a renewed focus on what lies ahead for the English regions in the aftermath of today’s result.

In the intervening years, limited powers and funding have been transferred to the regions from Whitehall despite weighty reports from the likes of Michael Heseltine.

Most of it has gone into the democratically unaccountable hands of Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Has the time come for the Prescott plans to be taken off the shelf and given a good dusting?

Such is the antipathy across the North in general towards today’s London-centric politics that I would bet a very different result to the one in 2004 would be almost certain

James Alexander: Scots show us the case for handing power to regions

 

James Alexander, Leader of the City of York Council and long time supporter of Yorkshire devolution, writes in a personal capacity in today’s Yorkshire Post

 

James Alexander: Scots show us the case for handing power to regions

Whire Rose county: Devolving power to the regions would be fairer

White Rose county: Devolving power to the regions would be fairer

THE North of England needs an Alex Salmond, not a Boris Johnson.

Today, the people of Scotland will go to the polls to vote on whether or not they wish to become an independent state. Whatever the outcome of this referendum, Scotland will gain even more powers than it has already enjoyed since the devolution settlement post-1997. I cannot help but see that devolution to Scotland, Wales and London has been matched only by greater centralisation in the rest of England.

Shadow Secretary of State for Local Government Hilary Benn MP described England to me as the last bastion of the British Empire ruled from London. What other western country would have a Government dictating to councils about how often bins should be emptied?

Yorkshire and the Humber is one of 12 recognised UK regions of the European Union. Our region has a population comparable with Scotland and an economy double that of Wales. Our population and economy is larger than many European states. We have a region that is brimful of economic potential, with ambitious businesses employing a talented and diverse population.

There are 22 local authorities in Yorkshire and Humber: one county council, five unitary authorities, seven districts and nine metropolitan boroughs. According to the Local Government Association, the coalition Government will have cut funding to councils to run local services by 40 per cent by the end of this Parliament. The situation is unsustainable – price inflation and growth in demand for services mean that in real terms the cuts are much deeper than the Government contends. In York we collect £66m a year in council tax but we spend £77m a year gross on elderly care.

Disappointingly, we are not seeing the Government modernise and cut costs at the same pace – the Conservative Party chairman, Grant Shapps, has said that if the whole of Government had to deliver the funding reductions councils had made, the national deficit would be erased. I am really concerned that If we have localities effectively going bankrupt, it will have a negative impact on inward investment, just as it has for Detroit in the United States. This will have a disastrous effect on the fragile recovery.

Government is therefore faced with two choices: increase funding to local government or reduce the cost. There are only two ways of reducing the cost: take away from councils the legal requirement to deliver certain services, such as elderly care, or begin rationalising public services.

There can be a better approach. By this, I mean finding a way to live within a reducing budget envelope. I think the answer lies in a merger of councils and other public services.

In Yorkshire and the Humber, there are 22 council chief executives and almost 100 senior managers. There are four police forces, four fire and rescue services and a plethora of NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups. It is about time we rationalised public services into regional or sub-regional structures.

This could reduce management costs, get better value for money through commissioning and procurement, harmonise fair pay and conditions and reduce the number of politicians. More importantly, we could use the larger geography to develop a stronger economic base.

I think that this could also be the start to Yorkshire and the Humber achieving Scottish-style devolution. Devolved parliaments and assemblies have given Scotland, Wales and London an even greater voice. In London, the taxpayer spend on transport is £2,731 per head. In Yorkshire and the Humber, it is £201.

Last year the Government decided to cut this region’s European regeneration funding by 56 per cent to divert tens of millions of pounds away from the region and into Scotland and Wales. Government needs to be fair. Councils, such as the one I lead, contribute £40m extra a year in business rates to London than they receive back. Leeds contributes £60m. Why can’t the region that staged the Tour de France reduce business rates to become more competitive? Why can’t we create bonds to pay for transport infrastructure? Why can’t we decide if we would like free prescriptions? Or to have no tuition fees?

The post-1997 settlement has left a democratic deficit in England and I believe the time has come for devolution and fairer funding to Yorkshire.

The Deputy Prime Minster, Nick Clegg, has advocated directly elected “metro mayors”. Directly-elected mayors have only recently been rejected by a number of the big cities. However, if “metro mayors” were concurrent with a convergence of public services across an area with devolved fair powers and fair funding, I, for one, am open to a conversation.

The UK will never be the same again after the Scottish referendum – the devolution genie is out of the bottle.

• James Alexander is the Labour leader of City of York Council. He is writing in a personal capacity.

 

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