NOT for the first time, the Scots have done the English a great favour. The recent independence referendum has propelled the subject of devolution in England, one of the most centralised countries in the world, right up the political agenda.
There is now a great opportunity, not only for Yorkshire and the North, but for the whole of England to seize the moment to get real power devolved where it belongs – closer to people and communities.
However, the worry is that national politicians will concentrate on the sideshow issue of “English votes for English MPs” and miss the opportunity to make a fundamental change for the better by empowering local councils and groups of adjacent local councils. By all means sort out the issue of when Scottish MPs can and can’t vote in the UK Parliament but that is not the main event.
We regard ourselves as one of the great democracies of the world but there is a big democratic deficit in this country.
One aspect of that is a lack of real local democracy with far too much power concentrated at the national level. Successive governments, despite their talk of localism, have emasculated local government and left it denuded of much of the power, prestige and money it once had.
But why does this matter? Why on earth would we want to give more power to local politicians? And what real difference would it make to our lives? Here are three reasons.
Firstly, it worked in the past. Spool back over a hundred years to the great period of municipal entrepreneurship of the Victorians where cities and towns all over England proudly developed and led great civic projects – supplying clean water, public health, housing, education and the infrastructure to nurture local business and generate wealth but also to support the most vulnerable in society.
There was much wrong with 19th century Britain but many of the advances and improvements that were made were local not national initiatives.
Secondly, it works elsewhere in the world. Go to countries like the US, Germany or Switzerland and you find energetic and empowered regional and local governments making a difference to people’s lives.
There, people feel a strong sense of identity to each level of government – for example, to their city, to their state as well as to the whole country in the USA. Local governments have the ability to decide for themselves, within certain limits, and the accompanying power to raise and spend money and be accountable for it.
This produces innovation, healthy competition and real improvements. Note also that those decentralised countries are also countries with generally successful economies.
Thirdly, it’s already working in other parts of this country. London, with its mayor and assembly, has been able to introduce policies, sometimes controversial ones, that a majority wanted like the congestion charge; Scotland and Wales have made key decisions which people in those countries believe are right for them and for their economies. In Greater Manchester, the 10 local councils have formed a joint authority which is probably the best example yet of effective collaboration between adjacent councils. It’s a bit messy, it can lead to the so-called “postcode lottery” around the country but it’s from this decentralised decision-making that many great ideas flow.
This does not have to be about creating more politicians. Regional assemblies sound superficially attractive, particularly in an area like Yorkshire, but there seems little popular appetite for another tier of government.
Surely the most attractive and cost-effective way of real devolution is to empower the existing local councils like Bradford, Leeds and Sheffield with more power, more responsibility and more money and then to get them to form meaningful alliances.
So, in West Yorkshire, for example, we now have the West Yorkshire Combined Authority – a sort of West Yorkshire County Council lite – which will hopefully tackle issues which can’t be confined within one local council area but at a level which is still local enough to be meaningful – particularly around transport infrastructure.
Sorting out the best local government arrangements outside our main urban conurbations is slightly more complicated. However, what is crucial, whatever the exact map of local government, is that there should be tax-raising powers at a local level and the power to borrow and raise money by other means so that they can actually get stuff done.
Of course, there is a role for national governments to ensure minimum national standards, to help iron out inequalities and to handle matters which are truly national. But more powerful local governments can sit alongside that, more effective and better resourced, and be allowed to get on with the job .
• Colin Philpott is chief executive of Bradford Breakthrough.