Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence


Memorandum by the Campaign for an English Parliament (RG 66)

SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE

  Regional government is not devolution. Accordingly, the six issues which the Select Committee is addressing are issues of English local government re-organisation, not English devolution.

  A correct understanding of devolution is required.

  The basis of the devolution accorded by the UK Government in 1988 to Scotland and Wales was distinct nationhood within the United Kingdom.

  Devolution was granted only to 16.6% of the UK population, namely Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, not to the 83.4% of the UK population, namely England, despite the claim made by the Prime Minister in 1998 that his Government was embarking on a "comprehensive programme of constitutional reform".

  The "regional government" on offer in the 2004 referendum was nothing more than another round of English local government re-organisation, and indeed one which would have in fact increased Whitehall control.

  This is the English Question and the West Lothian Question, both of which are not being addressed by the UK government and, it appears, not by this Select Committee.

  Devolution 1998 made the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly responsible for Scottish and Welsh local government. No UK Parliamentary Committee of MPs can consider either independently of that Parliament and Assembly. The UK government however inclusive of Scottish and Welsh members, in the absence of any English devolution, continues to be responsible for English local government. This is both discriminatory and constitutionally wrong.

  The issues listed by the Select Committee in its press release cannot be constitutionally, adequately and fairly addressed without resolution of the English Question and the West Lothian Question.

  It is constitutionally unfair, unjust and discriminatory, that the UK government can and does address and decide the local government issues of only one of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom, namely England while giving Scotland the freedom to decide the same issues independently.

  The only way forward genuinely fair to England, and indeed to each of the constituent nation parts of the Union, will consist in a reconstruction of the Union in which the new relationship of Scotland to the UK State is granted to the other national constituent parts.

  Unless the Select Committee addresses this issue in its Inquiry, its recommendations will not be complete, thorough and adequate.

OBSERVATIONS ON THE TEXT OF THE COMMITTEE'S PRESS RELEASE

"A FUTURE FOR REGIONAL GOVERNMENT?"

  1.  There is regional government in England, none in Scotland and Wales. Scotland and Wales have national institutions of devolved government, the Parliament and the Assembly. The 1988 devolution legislation expressly designated them distinct nations within the United Kingdom; the terminology of regions was not applied to them. The Prime Minister's assertion: "I certainly recognise that England is a nation" (Bradford Telegraph/Argus 22/2/01) has not received any political or constitutional expression.

  2.  England has received no devolution of any sort. Instead it has been organised into eight regions with regional assemblies and one urban authority, the GLA by the UK government. Whereas the mayor of the GLA is directly elected, members of the RAs are not. RAs are made up of nominated members and they co-exist with county/city/district councils and regional development agencies. The GLA boundaries are those of the former GLC, those of the eight regions completely arbitrary. Their geographical size and that of the populations vary very greatly. England's North East region is 2.5 million, England's South East region is eight million. The NE region is just 90 miles in length, the South East some 250 miles. Their actual powers and responsibilities, which differ greatly from those of the GLA, are not clearly defined but are being developed by a process of UK Government subtraction of powers from existing councils in such areas as planning, economic planning, housing and transport.

  3.  The GLA and the RAs constitute a form of local government organisation.

TEXT DETAILS

  4.  "In the light of the no vote in the North East devolution referendum on 4 November 2004 . . ."

  The said referendum was not a devolution referendum. Not only did it contain no elements of devolution, but the constitution of the RA on offer was designed to achieve an increase in UK central government control of local government. Further that constitution would have maintained the independence of the RDA in relation to the RA, though of course central government control of the RDA remained unaffected. The correct description of the said referendum is a "referendum on local government re-organisation".

  5.  "Issues relating to regional government"

  This phrase and the listed issues confirm not just that there is regional government in England but that it is the intention of the UK government to develop and extend regional government in England. Regional government in England has been imposed incrementally by both Conservative and Labour administrations. No RA members have been elected. In contrast to English counties, regions are not historically organic local government developments but artificially constructed and governmentally imposed. The new concept of "city regions" will by and large correspond to the organic way in which England has developed. One salient feature of "regions" which is very unpopular is that that they do not correspond with local identities, which have taken centuries to develop.

  6.  "the potential for increasing the accountability of decision-making at the regional and sub-regional level, and the need to simplify existing arrangements"

  This is a rather gnomic objective. It must be assumed that "regional" refers to the present eight regions and "sub-regional" to counties, cities and district, even parish, councils. As things stand, electoral accountability exists only at the "sub-regional" level, it is altogether absent from the regional level, so the potential for increasing it exists only there, which points to direct elections. Direct election of regional members however was in fact the only thing formally on offer in the referendum and was therefore what England's North East rejected.

  7.  The statement assumes there will be regional government. "Accountability of decision-making" should however start with letting the electorate vote on whether they want regions and regional assemblies in the first place in any shape or form. It appears deficient of the Select Committee not to see this.

  8.  "the potential for devolution of powers from regional to local level"

  As the existing RAs are not devolved authorities but a newly introduced form of local government and have no devolved powers themselves but only powers extracted by the UK government from existing local government authorities, it must be that what this statement means is that powers extracted from existing local authorities and given to RAs will be returned to them through the agency of the same RAs. This hardly makes sense.

  9.  There is much confusion of meaning here. It would be preferable if the Select Committee used the term "delegation" and not "devolution" of powers when discussing local government.

  10.  "the effectiveness of current arrangements for managing services at the various levels and their inter-relationships".

  This aspect of the Inquiry is not a matter this Campaign would deal with.

  11.  "the potential for new arrangements, particularly the establishment of city regions"

  Like England's historic counties, which constitute the oldest form of local government in existence in Europe and with which the people of England identify, city regions are an organic development, specifically since the Industrial Revolution, and in the case of London long before. What develops organically and naturally almost always works. What doesn't work is imposed and artificial divisions of populations, of which it is very demonstrable that these "regions" are a prime example. These "regions" which the ODPM favours are artificial in their boundaries, have no roots in the political history of England and strike no resonance with how the people of England identify themselves. City regions however do suggest a definite potential for new and advantageous local government arrangements because they correspond to historic natural organic developments in the way English people have organised and identified themselves. But with caution, as immediately below.

  12.  "the impact which new regional and sub-regional arrangements, such as city regions, might have upon peripheral towns and cities"

  This statement lacks clarity. Does it mean that city regions will be "regional" or "sub-regional"? One would hope the former because the vast bulk of population and economic output is located in what will be city regions, and if despite that they are sub-regions within a "region", the rest of that "region" will be totally dominated by them, creating a dreadful democratic deficit and storing up deep reservoirs of resentment among the rural population. The environmental impact will be very bad too in that the rest of the "region" will become open game for new housing, employment parks and shopping malls, and all the roads that serve such developments.

  13.  City regions must be clearly delineated from the counties, and the counties must have equal powers in order to defend rural traditions, the countryside and the environment, rural employment and alternative ways of living from the cities. It is that the shire counties are not subordinated to urban areas. If the issue were ever put to the population at large, it would overwhelmingly stand up for the preservation of England's countryside. There must be this buffer of power between city and shire county. However, the ODPM appears to have failed to recognise and appreciate any of this. Future generations will be the victims.

  Usefully, the statement indicates that the Select Committee itself is sensitive to the possible impact of city regions upon peripheral towns and cities. They too have their local histories, identities and traditions which must be respected.

  14.  "the desirability of closer inter-regional cooperation (as in the Northern Way) to tackle economic disparities"

  This "Northern Way" aspiration of the ODPM cannot possibly be dealt with adequately within the constraints of this submission. It a prime example of the utter artificiality of the whole regional programme. There are others. The West Coast line, the East Coast line, the motorway system, the distances people travel to go to work, the plane links from, say, Manchester to London of a mere half hour, the way the health system works, etc, they all show up that artificiality. England is a small country. "Regions" are not the way the country works or the way people think and live their lives. This "Northern Way", strangely, was dreamt up by the ODPM even when it was engaged with total vigour and immense expense in trying to persuade the people of the North of England that they lived in three different regions. The reality is that industry defies such artificial boundaries. The M62 intersects with the M6 and the M1. Hull, Sheffield, Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, Warrington, Saint Helens, Runcorn, Liverpool, Birkenhead, all along the M62 and its connecting motorways are not in different "regions", they are in one country. Life flows between them. Industry, life, employment, culture in England flows east and west, north and south without boundaries. How out of touch can one get when Gloucestershire, a stone's throw from Oxford and from Hereford, towns and counties it has lived in close commerce with for centuries, is placed with total artificiality inside a South West "region" that runs hundreds of miles away to the Scillies, separated from the South East "region" that has Oxford in with Dover (yes, Dover!) and from the West Midlands "region" that has Hereford in with Stoke on Trent?

ISSUES TO BE CONSIDERED

  15.  The Select Committee's press release inviting evidence states that the Inquiry is its response to the "no" vote in what it calls "the North East devolution referendum". The presumption of that statement is that devolution was on offer to England's North East on 4 November 2004; and that devolution is the context to the six or more issues about which the Committee invites evidence. This Campaign believes that it is imperative that there is clarity about the meaning of "Devolution" and how it is to be distinguished from "local government".

  16.  Devolution consists in the distribution of power between the State and one or more or all of its constituent parts to be exercised by them independently of the State. It can take two forms. One, as in the USA, Germany, India and Spain for example, it is the fully constitutionally established right of a constituent part to exercise power without leave of the centre in specific areas of governance which the central government cannot legally amend or revoke. The other is what has been called by the Constitution Unit "permissive autonomy" such as exists in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales. Scotland now has autonomous powers in major areas of governance, Wales less so, which autonomy in both cases the UK Government respects and indeed has instituted. However, in the UK the relationship between them is not federal. The power of the Crown invested in the UK government remains supreme. The UK Government has retained its constitutional right to close down the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and to intervene in any of its decisions. Whether it will ever do so is of course another matter. The relationship is a very delicate balance, has not yet become an issue because the same party is in power in all three. We cannot predict what might occur in the future.

  17.  Local government amounts to local councils acting as agents of central government, a political system established over centuries as in England and France.

  18.  The regional assembly offered to the NE was not devolution. The clauses of the constitution of the regional assembly on offer demonstrated that very clearly, specifically that which made central government subsidies to the assemblies dependent upon them meeting economic targets which the government itself would set and performance about which it would be the judge, something not imposed on Scotland where devolution was genuine as well as extensive. What in fact was on offer under the guise of "devolution" was the extension of Whitehall control. In the UK, harsh though it is to say it, what really matters economically and politically is England which is 83.4% of the population, producing up to 90% of the GDP. Any committee considering devolution in the UK must make this its starting point.

  19.  In 1998 devolution was granted in different forms by the UK Government to just 16.6% of the UK population, namely to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. None to the remaining 83.4%, namely the people of England, despite the Prime Minister's assertion in 1998 that devolution was part of his "comprehensive programme of constitutional reform". Furthermore, the form devolution took in 1998 has worked to the disadvantage of the English people.

  20.  Intrinsic to devolution 1998 is the West Lothian Question. The WLQ constitutes a constitutional irregularity which flies in the face of the most fundamental principle of Representative Parliamentary Democracy which is the very basis of our system of government, that no minister should be able to introduce legislation and no ministers and MPs be able to vote on such legislation without being accountable to their constituents. The WLQ has legislated that principle out of existence by the very parliament that is supposed to live by it.

  21.  Furthermore, as much as £1,300 is spent on each individual in Scotland, Wales and NI more than in England in such areas as health, education and social services. These extra amounts of money, and others make possible a huge provision of services denied to England, like free personal care for the elderly, more free public transport for pensioners, free prescriptions in Wales for the 18-25 age group and due to be extended to the total Welsh population, no top-up fees in Scotland and a raft of health care provisions such as cancer treatments etc. For all English MPs this should be a matter of the greatest concern.

  22.  Devolution is a very good thing, an immense collective and individual resource. It distributes governmental power from the centre to the constituent parts, it encourages initiative, it promotes variety and creativity in government and culture, it respects differences of history, geography and culture, and it restrains and restricts the ever-overweening tendencies of central government. It should be available in equal measure to all UK citizens, not just a small minority of just 16.6%. However, the very limited way it has been granted by the UK government has been divisive, and harmful by being divisive.

  23.  Devolution however has to have a basis. The devolution introduced in the UK in 1998 in fact had a very clear and definite basis. It was Gordon Brown himself as Chancellor of the Exchequer in his speech to Labour's 1997 conference who set out the basis. He based Devolution UKt on the concept of "the nations of Britain" Up to that moment we had spoken of "the British nation". Mr Brown, the engine behind Scottish devolution, declared that it was the distinct nationhoods within this island which was the basis of UK devolution.

  24.  That the basis of Devolution 1998 was nationhood becomes incontestably clear from the language used by the government both in the actual devolution legislation itself. The UK Government in 1998 devolution legislation used the language of "nations", and only of "nations". Not of "regions" or any other division of population. Statement after statement, emphasise precisely this fact time and time again. "Scotland is a proud historic nation in the United Kingdom" Mr Blair asserts in his Preface to the Scotland Devolution Bill White Paper. "The Assembly will be the forum for the nation, able to debate all matters of concern to Wales" declares Clause 1.15 of the Welsh legislation. "The Scottish Parliament will strengthen democratic control and make government more accountable to the people of Scotland" promises Donald Dewar Secretary of State for Scotland in his Foreword. "Wales has some clear priorities which reflect its particular geography and history" states 2.4. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are authoritative statements of the constitutional existence of Scotland and Wales as distinct political national entities within the UK. The undisputable basis of Devolution 1998 was nationhood -that of Scotland and Wales. Neither was segmented into "regions".

  25.  But once Scotland as a distinct nation had been given devolution in the form of its own parliament and executive without any segmentation whatsoever, Mr Brown, the architect of the process, changed the basis. At the 2001 Manchester CBI conference he brought in the phrase: "the nations and regions of Britain". By "nations" he meant Scotland and Wales. But not England. Instead of England just "regions".

  26.  Whatever Mr Brown's perspectives in all this, the fact is, it is where we are. "Regions" and "regional assemblies" is the terminology used by the ODPM for England. The Government oppose any political and constitutional devolution settlement for England within the United Kingdom which would recognise and give expression to her historic distinct nationhood such as is accepted for Scotland and Wales. It is precisely that attitude, even ideology, towards England which has embroiled it in the constitutional and political turmoil that have followed, not just upon the referendum, but the 1998 devolution legislation.

  27.  That constitutional situation has to be correctly understood if ever it is to be resolved. Devolution was not on offer in that referendum. If regional assemblies represented genuine devolution, they would have meant that England would have been administratively terminated, that the English Question would have been resolved by officially constitutional and political termination of England. They would have meant that the North East would have stood in the same constitutional and political relationship to the UK state and government as Scotland and Wales do, and each "region" in relationship to each other as Scotland does to Wales.

  28.  But it was local government re-organisation, not devolution, that was not on offer. Yet that it was being passed off as -as devolution. The question that must be asked is why was the regional assembly put about as devolution for England. The answer to that will greatly assist this Inquiry.

  29.  The NE RA was put about by the ODPM as devolution because the government does not want devolution for England but is under pressure to somehow find an answer to both the WLQ and the English Question. The WLQ is a ticking time-bomb. It has plagued this government throughout all its proposals for reform of the health and education systems in England. How long can any UK government keep depending upon Scottish MPs' votes to impose changes upon England which the Scottish Parliament rejects for Scotland? How does the government defuse this time-bomb? Does it do it by segmenting England into mini-Scotland's each with their own assembly with the powers of the Scottish Parliament? That would result in the WLQ magnified another nine times. And it would terminate England, the oldest unified state in Europe, which no UK government has a mandate to do.

  30.  One way-out was just to keep ignoring the issue in the hope that the people of England, who are not dedicated constitutionalists, might just live and let live. That was the solution proposed by Lord Irvine as Lord Chancellor. It has not worked. English regional assemblies passed off as a form of devolution has not worked either.

  31.  There are only two ways in which to effectively defuse the time-bomb. Either the UK government repeals the 1998 Devolution legislation or it extends it to England. Repeal of the legislation is out of the question. An English Parliament, and with it a reconstituted Union, is not. It is the only way forward.

  32.  The only way forward genuinely fair to each of the constituent nation parts of the Union consists in that crucial reconstruction of the Union in which, as initiated in the 1998 legislation, a new relationship of the nations of Britain to the UK government must be worked out.





 
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