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Campaigners for more English powers are missing a trick

The problem with those seeking more English powers is that they’re not working together. Samuel Borges Photography

The repercussions of the Scottish independence referendum were always likely to be profound, whoever won. As Scotland waits to see if Westminster can meet its deadline for producing draft legislation for extending more powers north of the border by January 25, English political leaders have become more aware than ever of the growing gap in devolved powers between England and the other home nations. George Osborne’s return to stressing the need for further austerity after the May general election has provided further impetus for English devolution: to some, it is a way to counter fresh cuts.

What’s on the table

Four kinds of English devolution are being discussed. The first is what has become known “English Votes for English Laws,” to which end the leader of the House of Commons, William Hague, put forward four options on December 16. These included barring Scottish MPs from any role in English and Welsh legislation along with several more cautious proposals. A few days later Tory grandee Lord Salisbury went further, proposing that the Commons become an English parliament and the Lords become the UK house for a remnant of reserved subjects like defence and foreign affairs.

The next set of issues relate to providing further regional investment, particularly in the north to allow it to compete with the south and Scotland. In recent months, Chancellor George Osborne has been talking up his desire to pool the north English cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield into one large “northern powerhouse”. In the Autumn Statement, he announced investments into science facilities in Newcastle, Manchester and other cities, along with a range of cultural, road and rail improvements.

The third issue concerns devolving powers to some regional bodies. Like its Labour predecessor, the coalition has become enamoured with directly elected mayors. This has been most recently evident in the decision to award a directly elected mayor to a combination of the ten local authorities in Greater Manchester, with powers over transport, housing and planning.

Greater Manchester: new powers. The Laird of Oldham, CC BY-SA

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority is also to be awarded new powers relating to business growth, local skills and health and social care. This comes on the back of not-always-successful attempts from the coalition to award powers, particularly over local economic development, to the eight “core cities” outside London.

Finally, in early December, local councils made a high-profile bid for more powers when 119 English council leaders combined to write a strongly worded letter to The Observer newspaper. They pointed to devolution to Scotland and argued for greater powers over local budgets and powers to be granted to them, indicating that their voters expected no less.

The bigger picture

We’ve heard parts of these debates before, of course. The coalition set up the McKay Commission shortly after coming to office to look into the issue of English Votes for English Laws. Its recommendations included that a majority of English MPs should “normally” have to approve laws that distinctly affect England, but they were not implemented.

Meanwhile Manchester, along with eight other cities, actually declined the opportunity to have a directly elected mayor in a low-turnout referendum in May 2012. Since 2010 mainly northern Labour-led councils have complained bitterly that they have been unfairly squeezed by austerity while southern Conservative-led councils have had nowhere near the same level of cuts imposed on them.

Liverpool council is among those complaining that the north is getting the worst of the austerity. Beverley Goodwin, CC BY-SA

This is a long(ish) game, it must be said. While the Manchester devolution agreement has been signed, most of these issues will now be kicked into the long grass until after the general election – and no parliament can bind its successor. Investment in north England will require sustained attention over a long period of time, not just one short announcement. Neither does it appear to necessarily come with the political powers to decide priorities.

What is different this time in England is that there does appear to be some clear momentum behind these arguments, unlike in the failed north-east referendum in 2004, for example. The 119 council leaders’ Observer letter was a fully bipartisan effort. Political elites from various parties recognise that some form of English balancing of the asymmetric devolution settlement is necessary.

The small print

I would add three major disclaimers. Most of these potential reforms are piecemeal and depend almost entirely on the whim of the government of the day. Westminster retains power and is notoriously reluctant to give it up. If English political leaders wish more powers and investment, not only are they going to have to co-operate, they are also going to have to bring the public onboard to show these powers have support. The difficulties in this should not be underestimated.

Second, I often hear the refrain asserted that England is different and couldn’t have some form of parliament or devolved institution. But if Germany and the US have federal systems and operate successfully, there is no obvious reason why some form of institutional balancing could not work here.

The argument to the contrary either needs to be convincingly set out, or this option needs to start to be considered. Granted, public support is small. But if not considered seriously, any reforms will remain piecemeal, liable to further change and subject to the whims of whichever party is in government.

Finally, the debate in England partly misunderstands what has been offered to Scots by the Smith Commission. The headline reforms are certainly all about partial control of income taxes and finance. However, in a little-commented-upon part of the report, it also proposes that the Scottish parliament give up some powers to local government through a process of “double devolution”.

What this shows to those engaged in the English debate is that devolution is not an either/or process where the various options are mutually exclusive. Instead, a form of English votes for English laws (EVEL) or English institution could co-exist with either regional or local devolution of powers in a comprehensive constitutional settlement.

Until this is well recognised, the debate is likely to remain a piecemeal and zero-sum game where the actors seek advantage but no real meaningful power is given up by the centre. What is sure is that the debate will continue in 2015. From being a minority sport, territorial reforms are likely to become an important, and highly political, issue in the general election and beyond.

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