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

4  A new relationship

"We should reverse the trend of the last 100 years, which I think has neutered vast areas of this country outside London"—Rt Hon Lord Heseltine.[43]


64. The draft code for relations between central and local government is an attempt to take the debate regarding the centralisation of power in England to the next level. Some 83% of the population of the UK reside in England, and while people in other parts of the Union have statutory devolution, people in England do not. Elected representatives in the Devolved Assemblies and Legislatures make decisions for populations comparable to those of England's larger regions. The UK Government still takes decisions on behalf of over 50 million people living in England.

65. The codification of the relationship between central and local government would also clarify the roles and powers of each level of government. Taken together with the new general power of competence given to local government in the Localism Act 2011, it is likely that codification would lead to a decline in litigation relating to a local council's power to act, as that right would be doubly enshrined in law.

66. The Commission on the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons, also known as the McKay Commission, is considering "how the House of Commons might deal with legislation which affects only part of the United Kingdom, following the devolution of certain legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales."[44] However, the Commission is not directly examining the fact that power in England is extremely centralised in comparison to other countries in Western Europe. We will revisit this aspect of the English Question in our forthcoming report into whether there is a need for a constitutional convention for the UK.

67. The Association of North East Councils put it succinctly: "At a time when more powers are being devolved to territorial administrations, local authorities in the largest country in the United Kingdom remain subject to extensive legal, financial and regulatory constraints. This cannot be right or equitable".[45] If local government were to be given enhanced power, enforced by statute, this could go some way towards ensuring that local people had more say over policies that affect their lives. Councillor Mehboob Khan, Leader of Kirklees Council, stated that codifying the relationship between central and local government in statute "would be an important step towards radically revitalising local democracy".[46]

68. Tony Travers, local government expert and Director of LSE London, a research centre at the London School of Economics, told us that he thought a constitutional settlement for England, which devolved power to local government, could be a possibility:

I think it's not unimaginable that there could be a sort of England Act that sought in a once and for all way to create a constitutional devolution settlement within England for local government, possibly subjecting it to a referendum, which would give it the quasi constitutional status that the Scotland and Wales arrangements have given to Wales and to Scotland.[47]

69. It will always be legitimate for central government to set national priorities in certain policy areas, and the code would not seek to deprive central government of this right. Much work would need to be done to specify which powers and responsibilities would remain with central government and which would lay with local government. Consideration would also need to be given to the role of the UK Parliament in the context of the devolution of powers. National governments in many countries with devolved settlements deliver on their political priorities by incentives and programmes. That is not at issue. What is at issue is the micromanagement by Whitehall of essentially local choices. The centre should incentivise not mandate: one size does not fit all.


70. A majority of those who provided us with oral or written evidence were broadly in favour of the idea of a code and felt that the discussion about codification was timely.

71. The large cuts to budgets that local councils were having to make due to reductions in central government funding was cited by some as a reason for supporting codification. The Association of North East Councils told us:

The current economic position makes it all the more important to pursue this agenda. If, as seems likely, local authorities are going to be subject to a further round of cuts in the next spending review, it is imperative that they should be allowed to be innovative and creative in working out their own solutions to how they are going to continue to meet demands for services in a changed financial climate.[48]

72. Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham, wrote in favour of the code:

First of all thank you for starting this important discussion. I have long believed that we need much greater clarity about the role of local government and clearer limits to the legitimate boundaries of national government influence over what we do.[49]

This was reiterated by Sir Albert Bore, Leader of Birmingham City Council, who stated:

We can debate further the precise wording of the articles in the code. But I believe it is a banner behind which all localists should unite in demanding the independence for our local councils that is taken for granted in many other nations.[50]

73. The enthusiasm for the draft code displayed by some respondents was most welcome. As Nigel Slack, a member of the public, wrote: "this should be viewed as a new Magna Carta, complete with scrolls, seals and a copy in every council".[51] Others felt that only a code, enforced by statute, could reduce the tendency of central government to involve itself too much in local government affairs. Councillor Jillian Creasy of Sheffield City Council said that she supported the draft code because "one of the most disheartening and destabilising challenges facing local politicians is the rapid change to the very structure of our institution".[52] If the draft code were introduced, local government would have long-term stability.

74. Although at the political level the Government supports localism, there were worries that, at the administrative level, Whitehall would just pay lip service to the code if it were introduced. Dr Catherine Durose, from the University of Birmingham, and Councillor Ruth Dombey, Leader of Sutton Council, were sceptical about whether central government, in particular the Treasury, would be willing to let local councils keep more of the money raised by taxpayers in their own localities. Councillor Dombey stated simply that she supported the aims of the code but "the prospects for establishing this financial independence though would appear to be very slim given the centralist mindset of the Treasury".[53] If the code is to progress Ministers will need to exercise political leadership within their respective departments.

75. The campaign group Unlock Democracy conducted an online survey of 2,118 people between 26 October and 6 November 2012 to gauge the public appetite for codifying the relationship between central and local government. The results show that the vast majority of respondents, over 82%, were in favour of clarifying powers across different levels of government. Only 2% of respondents did not favour a code that clarified the power held by different levels of government. Although Unlock Democracy emphasised that their survey was not representative, the survey suggests that there is some public appetite for clarifying where power in the UK lies.

Table 1: Should there be a code clarifying the powers of Whitehall, Parliament and local Councils?
Answer Options Response Percent Response Count
Agree 82.3%1744
Disagree 2.1% 45
Open Minded 13.5% 285
Don't Know 2.1% 44
Please explain the reason for your response 1402
answered question 2118

Source: evidence submitted by Unlock Democracy

76. A clear majority of respondents were also in favour of local government being able to run its affairs independently of central government, a sentiment which was reflected in many of the written submissions to the inquiry.
Table 2: Do you think that local councils / authorities should be independent of central government?
Answer Options Response Percent Response Count
Agree 59.4%1182
Disagree 15.8% 315
Open Minded 21.4% 425
Don't Know 3.4% 68
Please explain the reason for your response 1181
answered question 1990

Source: evidence submitted by Unlock Democracy

77. We heard evidence that some councils, after decades of central government control, could find managing their own affairs very challenging. Councillor Roger Gough of Kent County Council told us:

It's a sort of Stockholm syndrome...There are one or two anecdotes about things that have happened since the election where Ministers have turned round and said, "You're on your own", and people have said, "Oh, but there's going to be some guidance, isn't there?" So there is an element of it.[54]

Local government expert Tony Travers also concurred with this view, adding:

As I understand "the Stockholm syndrome" that is actually sympathising with your captors, isn't it? There is an element of that about it. I think this goes further. At some level it does suit both central government and local government to have blurred accountability. The codification that you're discussing, however achieved, would improve that. People would know where accountability lay.[55]

Journalist Simon Jenkins stressed that if the devolution of power were an aim, it should be implemented without waiting for unanimous support. He stated:

Sometimes you have to be forced to be free; it's an old cliché. But if the reason for not decentralising power in Britain is that nobody wants it, or none of those people on to whom you would be decentralising it wants it, you'll never decentralise power.[56]

78. A few responses to the consultation were against the idea of a code backed by statute. Councillor Mark Crane, Leader of Selby Council, wrote to us: "my personal view is 'if it ain't broke don't fix it'. I see no reason or logic for this legislation"[57]. Councillor Ray Manning, Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, and Councillor Peter F Adams, of the Borough of Poole Council, were also against codification. However, the evidence set out in the previous chapters, the steps currently being taken by the Government, and reports from the Communities and Local Government Committee and the House of Lords Committee on Relations Between Central and Local Government suggest that the current overcentralisation of England is not a sustainable option for the long term. Clearly, there is much room for improvement in relations between central and local government.

79. We received a great deal of support for the idea of a code for relations between central and local government. We wish the Government to use this draft code as the start of a national conversation. We urge all interested parties to engage with the debate on how greater autonomy for local government could be achieved in a lasting and meaningful way.

43   Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence taken before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, The impact and effectiveness of ministerial reshuffles, 13 December 2012, Q 211  Back

44   Terms of reference for the Commission on the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons, the McKay Commission,  Back

45   Ev w13 Back

46   Ev w37 Back

47   Q 94 Back

48   Ev w13 Back

49   Ev w107 Back

50   Ev w106 Back

51   Ev w32 Back

52   Ev w35 Back

53   Ev w63 Back

54   Q 19 Back

55   Q 59 Back

56   Q 58 Back

57   Ev w31 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 29 January 2013