Prospects for codifying the relationship between central and local government - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents


"Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we should soon want for bread."—Thomas Jefferson[1]

Where will local government sit within our constitutional arrangements in five, 15 or 50 years' time? England is the most centralised country in the Union. Strong control by the central state means our localities underachieve on their massive potential. All previous attempts to create a more equal partnership between central and local government in England have fallen short, despite good intentions.

Our inquiry into the prospects for codifying the relationship between central and local government explored views about local government having greater control over its own affairs, and attempted to clarify at what level of government different powers should lie. We sought the input of local councils across England, and the 99 responses submitted to us indicate that there is indeed an appetite for greater clarity about the responsibilities that should rest with the centre and with local government, and for greater autonomy for local government.

Our inquiry sought to stimulate debate by creating and consulting on a draft code for relations between central and local government, which, if enforced by statute, could give local government in England a measure of constitutional protection that is common in other mature democracies.

The code contains 10 articles and a preamble, which represent the broad principles that should govern the relationship between central and local government. The key principles here are that local government should be independent of central government, have a secure financial base, and, with the consent of its electors, be able to exercise a range of revenue-raising powers suitable to the needs of the local community. In addition, government, of all levels, should be accountable to the people. The report sets out the background to the inquiry, discusses the rationale for codification, analyses previous attempts to codify the relationship between central and local government, explores the principal issues that were raised in response to our consultation on the draft code, and sets out how local government finance might work to secure a sustainable constitutional future.

We conclude that, now that devolution has successfully been established in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is time to revisit what the devolution of power could mean for communities in England. An attempt to introduce regional government in England was abandoned in 2004 after the North East of England rejected proposals for a regional assembly. There were no submissions suggesting a return to regional government. We do not suggest a revival of regional government for England. There is neither the political nor public appetite for this. Local government should be the vehicle for devolution in England.

Ending the overcentralisation of England is the unfinished business of devolution. In finishing that business, our report does not propose any further tiers of government, or elections, but considers the case for devolving real power and finance to local government and local communities. We have confidence in the concepts underpinning our proposals, but do not present the draft code on relations between central and local government as the only way forward. Instead, we hope that it will prompt Government to start a serious national dialogue, with a timetable, with the intention of discussing and agreeing its own entrenched statutory code. This will continue the direction of recent reforms and give clear and irrevocable power to local government in England.

1   Autobiography, by Thomas Jefferson. Retrieved 4 December 2012.  Back

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Prepared 29 January 2013