Future Governance of the UK

Empowering Yorkshire and Transforming Yorkshire recently submitted evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee Inquiry into the Future Governance of the UK. Our submission is reproduced below.

Empowering Yorkshire – Transforming Yorkshire

Submission to the House of Lords Constitution Committee in respect of their inquiry into the governance of the United Kingdom

Summary

1.           We believe that the current governance arrangements within the United Kingdom are wholly inadequate.

2.           The mismatch of authority, control, and responsibility as between national government, devolved administrations and local authorities and the consequent misallocation of resources are already undermining local democracy and damaging confidence in national government. This system is a recipe for failure and the failure is already apparent.

3.           National government’s undermining of the authority and credibility of local administrations in this way, by imposing “solutions” from outside against the will of those concerned, is nothing short of neo-colonialism.

4.           These actions, and the accompanying rise in authoritarianism, risk undermining democracy, subverting existing government institutions and breaking-up the United Kingdom.

5.           We believe that it is far too late to tinker with the current constitutional settlement. What is needed is a new people-framed written constitution that allocates power on the basis of subsidiarity and recognises the people’s sovereign right not only to be accurately represented but more importantly to be involved in decision making at all levels through participative deliberative democracy.

6.           As far as Yorkshire itself is concerned, we believe that the county as a whole should enjoy regional government through a directly elected parliament. The responsibilities and authority of this government should be based on the principle of subsidiarity.

1.           Is the current balance of powers within the UK optimal or does power need to be shared differently?

1.1         The current balance of power is far from optimal. The areas of the UK outside the devolved home nations are hampered by one of the most centralised systems of governance in the world. There are no regional administrations. Local government is a hotchpotch of county, city, unitary, district, combined authorities, town, and parish councils that have evolved, seemingly illogically, over time.

1.2         Currently in the UK, central government exercises a considerable amount of control over local government bodies. It provides finance for many local authority activities and seeks to micro-manage them to the extent that local minor decisions are now effectively being made by central government. This undermines local democracy because our local elected representatives have responsibilities, but little financial or supervisory control over what is done. This mismatch between the authority and control wielded by central government and the responsibility it insists lies with local representatives does little for the effectiveness of governance. The system is failing.

1.3         We have MPs not elected to represent the people of a locality taking decisions on their behalf.  By what authority are they able to do this? Voters are not stupid. They can see how limited the powers of local authorities really are. No wonder the turnout at local elections is so low.

1.4         Governance arrangements in the UK need to be based on the principle of subsidiarity whereby decisions are made at the most immediate level consistent with their resolution and by those likely to be affected by such decisions. So, if a service can be provided effectively at a local level, then that level should not only be empowered to provide that service, but also held responsible and accountable for what is done. This sort of arrangement could not come into being without significant constitutional change.

1.5         The recent appearance of the Northern Independence Party indicates that there is growing public support for radical change. There are already established regional parties and movements inthe North of England in general (particularly in the North east) and in Yorkshire and Cornwall.

2.           What are the current challenges for multi-level governance in the UK and how can these be addressed?

2.1         The Westminster government should stop micro-managing local affairs. It does this badly as it tends to ride rough shod over local and regional identities and traditions. The UK can learn a lot from other countries (e.g., Germany and Switzerland) with multi-level governance structures, that combine citizen involvement and participation with accountable representation. The greatest challenge facing the UK in this area is the attitude of the Westminster establishment and its refusal to give powers to regional and local authorities in a proper position to use them. Where these authorities do not exist, they should be created in accordance with the articulated needs and wishes of the citizen electorates concerned. It is not sufficient simply to talk to existing political leaders who frequently have a vested interest in preserving the status quo irrespective of what is best for the area in question. The people themselves, the ordinary folk living in an area, must be engaged so that they can identify with and take possession of the new institutions thus created.

2.2         A further challenge is the regional economic inequality within the UK. Current arrangements have consistently failed to address this issue. (See: funding arrangements in 6 below).

3.           Should there be a greater degree of devolution within England and, if so, how should these arrangements relate to the UK as a whole?

3.1         Given the subsidiarity principle referred to in 1.4 above, it is clear that an English parliament would simply replicate current problems. Most of these more serious problems are within England itself and are a direct result of the actions of a centralised Westminster elite. An English parliament, absent substantial devolution of powers to the regions, would change nothing.

3.2         In Yorkshire we would like to see a regional government for the whole of the traditional county answerable to a directly elected parliament managing the county according to the will of the people of Yorkshire. One obvious benefit of a settlement of this kind is that it would encourage active and participative democracy at all levels of government. Greater participation creates a sense of ownership and pride amongst those taking part, as well as resulting in better decision making.

3.3         There is an important principle at stake here, why shouldn’t ordinary people with their user expertise and knowledge of what is needed be allowed to have a much greater say in managing their own affairs? It is a bit of a liberty, quite frankly, for professional politicians and civil servants to claim that they know better what is needed. They don’t!

3.4         Support for Yorkshire devolution has been demonstrated in the recent past when, in 2018, 18 out of 20 local authorities within the region came out in support of the One Yorkshire devolution proposal. In 2017, 72,566 people voted for One Yorkshire devolution in community polls in Barnsley and Doncaster. They accounted for around 85% of the votes cast.

4.           How well understood in its constituent parts is the UK’s common purpose and the collective provision it makes? And what impact does this have on democratic accountability?

4.1         The writers were slightly confused by the term “the UK’s common purpose”. Does this refer to the common purpose of the peoples of the UK in terms of culture, aspirations, rights and so on?  Or to something more specific like the provision of national common services?

4.2         So, what Common Purpose?

4.3         Most individuals tend to identify with and care most about the part of the United Kingdom they belong to.  

4.4         Historically, there were multiple ways of being British, all of them carrying different meanings and emotive charges, from the Orange parade in Ballymena, to Conservative garden parties in the home counties, to patriotic Scottish unionism that is fiercely protective of local traditions and rights.

4.5         With the possible exception of Leeds, life’s experiences in Yorkshire are hugely different to those, for example, in London, Birmingham, Manchester, or Glasgow.

4.6         Yorkshire shares little common purpose with the more prosperous south or other parts of the UK. There is little balanced collective provision across the country. Some areas receive much higher investment than others.

4.7         And what democratic accountability?

4.8         There is no democratic accountability under the first past the post electoral system unless you happen to live in a much fought after marginal constituency.

4.9         Millions of peoples’ votes simply do not count unless they happen to live in a marginal constituency.  

4.10       We believe that the constituent parts of the common provisions provided by the UK administrations are well understood. Certain roles may be split between national and, where they exist, regional institutions, including the home nations and administrations, for example, security and counterterrorism.  But devolution accords need to clearly define the relationships between these institutions.  This they do not always do. Furthermore, it should be unconstitutional for the UK government to pass legislation affecting any of the devolved administrations without the latters’ specific consent. Similarly, it should be unconstitutional for a devolved administration to legislate on matters falling within the remit of the UK central government. One example would be defence.

4.11       As long as the various levels of government respect each other’s areas of competence, there should be few problems.

4.12       In terms of democratic accountability, there should be few issues, provided decisions are taken by those most immediately and directly affected. The benefits of the UK government providing such services as defence, security oversight, trade agreements, international relations and so on, are widely recognised. It is elected to perform such functions. Accountability problems arise when disconnected national representatives are called upon, or presume to able, to provide regional and local governance. 

5.           How can the existing constitutional arrangements regarding governance of the UK be made more coherent and accessible, or should the overall structure be revisited?

5.1         Our current constitution is no longer fit for purpose.

5.2         Parliamentary sovereignty and our current constitutional arrangements no longer serve the interests of a modern Britain. They serve rather the interests of a disconnected, capitalist, neo-liberal elite.

5.3         Parliamentary Sovereignty must be replaced by a modern People’s sovereignty.

5.4         A new kind of direct deliberative democracy is needed, based on subsidiarity, that combines effective citizen participation with genuine representation by and on behalf of the people. 

5.5         Through genuine deliberation, people must be given a meaningful part to play in the decision-making processes that affect their lives locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. This right to participation and the civic responsibilities that must go with it need to be recognised and protected by a new citizen-framed constitution.

5.6         We are calling for a new regional constitutional approach, like that in Germany, Switzerland, and other countries.

5.7         Under this new approach, each regional polity would have its own constitution, decided upon by the people, with its own municipal arrangements, legislature, executive, system of taxation, police, and courts.

5.8         The United Kingdom would become a confederation of autonomous regional polities, with the House of Windsor, if appropriate, providing a ceremonial head of state.  

5.9         The confederation’s shared interests would be represented by a Confederal Government based in Westminster or elsewhere. Its powers would be delegated upwards from the regions. Such powers would include foreign affairs, defence, transport links, energy, and safety of the environment.

5.10       Without radical change, the United Kingdom as we know it will simply disintegrate, with an independent Scotland and Wales and united Ireland on the cards. We believe it is worth saving.

6.           How effective are the current funding arrangements within the UK and to what constitutional implications do they give rise?

6.1         The current funding arrangements are discredited and wholly inadequate. Central government funds many regional and local activities from a central “pot”.

6.2         As a result of mismanagement of this “central pot” by successive Conservative, Coalition, or Labour Governments, Yorkshire’s former industrial areas have continued to struggle with decline over the past 40 or so years.  This decline is self-evident, for example, when visiting parts of Bradford, Brightside in Sheffield, or Dewsbury in the old Heavy Woollen District.

6.3         There has not only been a downturn in the job market, but these places have been let become shabby.  It is no wonder that people no longer trust politicians or politics generally.

6.4         Add to this, what started as rate capping in the 1980’s, and the ongoing ever increasing stricter ring-fencing rules, have tied local governments’ hands, with no room for innovation or local priorities.

6.5         This is not democracy but more like autocratic dictatorship from the centre. 

6.6         Investment decisions continue to be based on the greatest potential return not on the greatest need. Clearly, this has resulted in London and the South East getting preferential treatment. As the scale and scope of the metropolis have grown, greater returns can be achieved there fasterthan elsewhere. The Treasury Green Book was revised in 2020 to take account of the government’s levelling-up agenda but it is unlikely that this initiative will have any significant impact. Early indications suggest that some of the allocation methods for funding are opaque and tainted by political bias.

6.7         The Treasury’s past investment methodologies, combined with the capital’s huge lobbying capabilities, has meant that much public investment funding has been skewed towards London. The same is also true of the funding of running costs. (Capital spending per person in London in 2019-20 was £1485; in Yorkshire, £791.  Current spending per person in London in 2019-20 was £9350; in Yorkshire £8610. (Source: Commons Library Research Briefing Public Spending by Country and Region Dec. 2020)

6.8         Thus, public funding allocations in England have resulted in considerable regional inequality. The Barnett Formula for the devolved administrations takes the aggregate position of England when arriving at funding decisions. This means that the devolved administrations have an advantage over the poorer regions of England. (Capital spending per person in Scotland in 2019-20 was £1,408; Current spending per person in Scotland in 2019-20 was £10,158. These figures should be compared with those for Yorkshire in 6.7 above)

6.9         Add to these issues the fact that London is successful at attracting private investment and we have a position within the UK where regional inequality is likely to worsen.

6.10       The key failure of the current system is that central government controls the funding. As stated in 1.2, control and responsibility are split leading to problems of accountability. A system based on subsidiarity would require the UK tax system to be re-examined, with control and responsibility being devolved to regional and local governments.

7.           Conclusion Yorkshire

7.1         Yorkshire should have a regional government for the whole of the county drawn from a directly elected parliament. The responsibilities and authority for this government should be based on a Yorkshire Constitutional Settlement citizen-framed in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity.  The Yorkshire political system would be based on deliberative, participative democracy using a “fair votes” electoral system and would be informed by extensive open research, supported by an independent and democratically accountable regional media facility complying with standards of integrity, honesty, balance, and truth.

Here is a link to the published version –revised formatting and paragraph numbering:

https://committees.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/25929/pdf/

Here is a link to the rest of the written evidence published by the House of Lords Constitution Committee in connection with this inquiry:

https://committees.parliament.uk/work/1127/future-governance-of-the-uk/publications/written-evidence/

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