The consequences of the Scottish Referendum campaign are beginning to reverberate South of the border and it is producing evidence of how little creativity and imagination some of our MPs really have, or perhaps how keen they are to strengthen the status quo from where their tribal power emanates. As a result of the disconnect between London in general and Westminster in particular and the rest of the UK, the Referendum campaign was very interesting for many of us. At the beginning of 2014 it appeared that the No Campaign was still being presumed by Westminster as the inevitable winner of the contest. By the Summer the panic had set in and so our three Party leaders, without any mandate to do so promised all sorts of constitutional changes on our behalf to the Scots, providing the outcome was the No that they these leaders wanted. Then within days of the referendum the changes that had been promised for Scotland were being linked to English devolution, leading to an inevitable delay in the promised powers being delivered. The early stages of English devolution began in the late 20th Century with the creation of the Mayor of London. Several Northern Cities have been exploring a similar route and we now know that Manchester is next off the blocks. There are possible second or third wave followers in locations where City Mayors have been adopted or in locations where local Government is prepared to cooperate in new ways across large Cities. On Monday in Parliament the issue of English Devolution was debated. One of those speaking was Henry Smith, MP from Crawley who stood up following the opening remark from another MP:
“The hon. Gentleman is correct about the importance of devolution to cities in England, but the counties make up about 50% of its population and about 85% of its land area. Does he agree that there is a very strong case for devolution to county government, which has a strategic and very strong democratic record?”
I have written before about the challenge for assuming that City Region devolution as it is called in Westminster will work as a model for parts of the UK where there are no Metropolitan Cities to focus on. The South East of England is a region defined by a previous Government that Henry and I have some knowledge of as we worked together as members of the South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA). Sadly he spent most of his time trying to derail the body as it did not suit his political ideas. The area included Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire and also Milton Keynes. In 2008 this area included over 8M people, and the largest city or conurbation was Brighton & Hove with some 250,000 people. If we are to achieve devolution in this region it is reasonable to assume it will be in much smaller areas than the whole of the South East (even though it would give us a comparable size and influence to that of London). Henry who used to be the leader of West Sussex County Council would favour devolution to be shaped along the lines of existing power structures where the political parties already have their identities resolved. However that would not really provide the change that we need. If we are to devolve power from Westminster outside of existing metropolitan cities, we need to make better sense of how economic and social influence ebbs and flows in practice, not merely fall back on existing political structures most of which were formed at a time when Airports and powered road transport, electricity, computers and telephones were not in the wildest imagination of the most far sighted futurologists of those times. Some of this work is already taking place albeit far away from Westminster. Brighton and Hove is working with adjacent District Councils to explore the Greater Brighton Area. They are failing to involve many of the partners that will be needed if the venture is to succeed such as the voluntary sector but nevertheless the early signs are very encouraging. Similar activity is being explored around the power base of Gatwick Airport (the so called Gatwick Diamond). Devolution from Whitehall to networks such as those would have course lead to questions for the towns and rural areas nearby and we need a debate that allows us to also explore what rural devolution might look like. However we cannot afford to fall back on the County Councils as Henry is suggesting. In the case of both the Gatwick Diamond and the Greater Brighton Area these cut across existing County Council boundaries. Of course Henry has a point in that these new areas do not have a record of what Henry refers to as democracy. Nevertheless because of the involvement of public sector, business and voluntary sector agencies, these new structures can offer a strategic value far in excess of the limited strategic focus of most County Councils. As far as democracy is concerned, we can hardly expect people like Henry who is a strong advocate of tribal party politics to grasp that some of us do not believe that our MPs or Councillors are really as democratically secure as he would like to portray.