The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee today published a report, the result of a process announced on 1st November 2010 which calls for more autonomy and fiscal powers for local government in England. Making the point that the relationship between central and local government is skewed in favour of the centre, the Select Committee attempts to lay out steps to what would be a radical modernisation of the relationship between local and central government, replacing subservience with what they term a partnership of equals. The aim of the Select Committee’s proposals is, they maintain, to break the suffocating micromanagement of Whitehall by separating local government from the central government and to define local government’s rights, powers and independence in a Statutory Code. This Code, they suggest, would itself be uniquely protected from easy repeal by being entrenched in the 1911 Parliament Act. (The Draft Code can be accessed from this page, opening as a pdf document).
While being extremely generous with praise that the Select Committee have considered the subservient state of local government, one can only condemn said Committee for producing what can surely be called a half-arsed collection of recommendations that devolve about as much power as has the Localism Act. For example among their recommendations it is proposed that central government should donate a share of income tax to local authorities while allowing said authorities to raise further revenue by means of additional taxation – the latter only with the consent of their electorates. The recommendations also call for the Government to examine the possibilities of a stronger constitutional status for local government, through an entrenched statutory code, or a similar proposal.
This report offers only yet more tinkering with our system of democracy, a system that is no longer fit for purpose and one which by means of its core principle does not allow for devolution of squat-diddley. What is needed here is a complete rethink about the subject of democracy per se – to whom does a country belong and therefore to whom does power belong; coupled with the further question: for what areas should national and local government be responsible.
Of course talk about devolution of power is, strictly speaking, incorrect – it should be termed the return of power, the return to those from whom it was usurped by the political class. If there is to be a discussion about democracy and how our country should progress – and boy, do we need such a discussion – then it is necessary to take guidance from The Harrogate Agenda and its 6 Demands.
When the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee talk about local government’s rights, powers and independence being entrenched in a Statutory Code or some other means, it has to be by “some other means”. That entails local authorities becoming constitutional entities, their existence, powers and revenue-raising capabilities being defined by the people via the medium of a constitution, approved by the people in a referendum. This would also encapsulate the idea of “Referism” whereby rather than inform those who provide the funding how much funds they intend taking, local authorities would have to present a budget – accompanied by the word “please” – for approval by those doing the funding.
Where this report from the Political and Constitution Reform Committee is concerned it can but demonstrate that where you have half-arsed politicians one can only expect them to produce half-arsed proposals.