The governance of Britain
9 July, 2007

Chris Leslie
Westminster and Whitehall World

To paraphrase a former Prime Minister, this is not the time for soundbites, but perhaps the hand of history is on our shoulder. Constitutional reform, so long seen as the obsession for ‘hobbyists’ like myself, is suddenly a major political issue and one on which the new Prime Minister chose to make his first Commons statement. His expansive Green Paper, “The Governance of Britain” should act as a catalyst for debate not only on how Parliament functions but in what kind of democracy we want to live. It creates a rare opportunity for us all to take a clear view of how we are governed and, more importantly, put us on a clear path towards greater decentralisation.

“Governing differently” is a theme I think Gordon Brown will warm to over the coming months, which is positive for those of us who argue for greater devolution and localism. There is a serious imbalance of power between Westminster and the rest of the country, and a clever constitutional redesign would be one which recognised the limits of Parliament’s reach, which empowered locally representative bodies to take more responsibility and which fostered local creativity rather than stifling it. The new proposed concordat between local and national government should also think about opportunities to democratise some of the local and regional quangos currently set up as virtual colonial outposts of Whitehall. A strong start would be to think through and pilot a more democratic governance of local PCTs and Police Authorities too.

However this must also include financial delegation and not just symbolic reforms. The concordat could be a promising step forward, as long as it tackles the fundamental financial imbalance-of-power which still leaves councils with an unhealthy grant dependency culture. Local and national government must become true partners, rather than ‘big brother and little brother’, with a stronger say in national decision-making, including perhaps through a reformed House of Lords. The new concordat could also extend democratic oversight over other local public services, including to health and criminal justice, in a move that would give wider powers to local residents.”

Devolution in England remains unfinished business, so the introduction of Regional Ministers and propositions for Regional Select Committees and a Question Time arrangement for each region will be a major boost for communities in all corners of the country. The question of regional governance increasingly resembles a baby that needs changing: everyone knows it requires attention but no one wants to deal with it! However as the Prime Minister faces more vocal criticism over a perceived imbalance of power in Britain, something that I believe will be personified in increasing opposition calls for ‘English votes for English issues’, cracking the regions conundrum will be crucial.

At the New Local Government Network, in the past year, we have proposed a variety of solutions that may answer the infamous ‘West Lothian Question’ by giving a stronger voice to local and national representatives in each English region, providing each part of England with an ability to make decisions over infrastructure investment, with radical improvements in their leadership and accountability. There now must be matching reforms to give local government leaders a stronger stake in the management and scrutiny of regional bodies and regional decision-making.

The Regional Ministers initiative, alongside the regional select committees and question times, is a positive advance for English devolution, and will make a difference to parts of the country not currently heard as much as they deserve. If England’s regions are to enjoy greater prosperity and economic growth in the years to come, local authorities and national leaders must come together to fight for the major investment and infrastructure needed in every city and community in the country. However it is important that local council leaders are also brought into the new Regional Select Committee membership, alongside MPs, so that both ‘poles’ in our constitution – national and local – share in the scrutiny and management role.

Gordon Brown is right to caution that this first wave of reform will not solve all constitutional issues overnight. Greater challenges remain, including the thorny issue of reform to Whitehall. I would certainly like to the see the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR07) tackling this head-on. Thinking optimistically, CSR07 could be the moment when the day to day temptations to grab the levers of command and control are superseded by the wise devolution of power from Whitehall, which cannot possibly gather together management data and local knowledge needed to govern micro-policy decisions. The CSR is the key moment determining whether this will happen.

The Prime Minister’s reforms have so far been well received by Parliamentarians and commentators – including support from Tony Benn, which is a rare feat for a Prime Minister – and as a former Constitutional Affairs Minister, I am very pleased that we will finally be able to have such a wide-ranging discussion on how we are governed. If we are truly in a new era of politics, this could lead the way to a new era of devolution too. This should be our focus and our ambition.