There is some talk in the press this week about the growing need for federalism within the government of the UK. The argument goes that, whatever the outcome of the forthcoming Scottish Referendum we will be moving towards a more federal approach of government.
The problem is that around 84 per cent of the UK population lives in England, and there is no appetite for an English Parliament. So what are the options, and what are the lessons?
Will it be Regions?
In his excellent book, Walter Menzies talks about the in-joke in Whitehall of TAFKAR – the areas formerly known as regions. In 2010, one of the first acts of the Coalition Government was to dismantle the regional bodies in England. Even the use of the word ‘region’ was abolished. Everything was now ‘local’. This policy move has been under-researched in my opinion, but my sense is that it was driven by some councillors who had a fundamental dislike of regional housing strategies and boards telling them what to do. This dislike was, I suspect, especially found in the more prosperous semi-rural council areas who resented being told what to do by the nearby urban centres. The new Localism policy tried to fill the void with some planning guidance and incentives for development, but the house building shortage is a measure of its lack of impact.
However, the previous Labour government also fumbled the ball on regions. The trend seemed to be unstoppable but then we had the no vote in the North East. At the heart of government someone got cold feet just before the vote, and overnight a promise was made to the media that the vote would be changed to ‘reduce bureaucracy’. The new question was, which would you prefer – counties or regions – but you cannot have both. OK, the people said, we’ll keep what we’ve got.
Will it be Mayors?
Another response that still has some supporters is for more elected mayors, even though some of the areas that have tried them have later voted to go back to traditional councillors. This policy has been more researched and commented on than regional governance, and for the most part is not seen now as a strong contender. For me, the idea of elected mayors tried to put personalities above structures, and confused the effectiveness of Mayors of London as individual politicians without taking account of their additional legal powers.
Will it be Cities?
The idea of city-regions, roughly based on the old metropolitan counties but with a strategic influence beyond, has been gaining ground for some time. The recent development of Combined Authorities has been led by Greater Manchester and is spreading out in subsequent years with Liverpool, Leeds and elsewhere. These are new local authorities, being additional to the existing cities and boroughs that sit within them. So far these new authorities could be called a tidying-up exercise of all the various joint boards and arrangements that had to be invented when the metropolitan counties were abolished in the 1980s. Their competences include transport, waste and economic development. However, the ambition is that they provide a ready-to-roll vehicle for any new powers and resources that might flow to the urban areas outside of London.
England within a Federal UK?
So, with 84 per cent of the population in England, let us try and imagine who sits around the table of a Federal UK meeting. The easy bit is – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London.
And then we have – the ‘rest’, the ‘provinces’.
Curiously we are also the majority at the table, but you would not know that from the discussions so far, nor from the existing balance of powers. City-regions are now a strong contender for the other seats around the federal table, and in terms of population there is a strong democratic case. However, we need to remember another dynamic within the previous Labour government when the Countryside Alliance organised a mass march through London. Despite the fact that rural areas were more subsidised than urban areas, the government’s willingness to listen to the needs of cities chilled considerably.
This time around, as cities and urban areas we need to make sure we get our seats at the federal table. To do this effectively and to avoid being tackled to the ground we need to learn how, from the 1980s onwards, various hostile interests have got ahead of us and taken our rightful place. It is politics, so we should not be surprised. And not caught off-guard this time.
Finally, if anyone suggests that UK Federalism and fair city-region representation can be sorted by reforming the House of Lords, just think ‘long grass’.