Political and Constitutional Reform CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Professor Tony Travers

1. The draft Code of Inter-Governmental Relationships in England outlines a possible, semi-constitutional, codification of the relationship between central and local government. There is no doubt that the long-term drift of power from local to central government in Britain/England has led to a degree of centralisation which suggests the need for a radical overhaul of the basis for the respective positions within the constitution of central and local government. Councils, after all, are a part of the checks and balances that operate within the British constitutional arrangements.

2. It will inevitably be difficult to move from the loose governmental arrangements that have evolved in Britain towards a more formal, written, basis for constitutional relationships. Any attempt to describe a long-term balance of powers between two or more institutions of government will be seen as challenging to the existing, widely-understood, arrangements. There will be concerns that freedoms and flexibilities will be lost. British politicians, schooled within a system that has no written constitution, will be suspicious of any formalisation.

3. But the degree of centralisation within England is such that many political thinkers, both right and left, are now making proposals for radical “localism”. There is an acceptance that Britain/England has become one of the most centrally-controlled of all Western democracies and that something must change. Shifting power downwards to councils and/or local communities is increasingly a mainstream political view.

4. But before anything much can be achieved, it will be necessary to re-set the constitutional balance between central and local government and also to promote new arrangements to preserve the rights and powers of local democratic institutions. The proposed Code of Inter-Governmental Relationships in England would provide the basis for a new settlement. Inevitably there would be disagreements about the precise contents and wording of such an important quasi-constitutional document. Moreover, it would require Parliament to acquiesce to a number of changes to its operations and procedures. The government and Opposition parties would need to agree that new conventions could be adopted.

5. But the draft code would be a helpful starting-point. Parliament, the government, the Opposition and local government would have to work together on final version of such a document and the procedures needed to allow it to work effectively. However, without such a starting-point there can be no progress towards the desperately-needed constitutional re-balancing of Britain.

April 2011

Prepared 28th January 2013