Friday, 13 April 2018

What devolution isn't...

First let me tell you what devolution is:
Of course, certain responsibilities, such as enforcing and interpreting the Constitution, conducting foreign relations, providing national security, monetary and fiscal policy, and regulating inter-state commerce must remain at the assigned federal level. States also retain critical responsibilities under their own constitutions and must deal with some issues on a multi-community basis. But, Constitutional Localism argues for a system which prefers that decision making be as close to the citizens as possible. That is where consensus and effective solutions are most likely to emerge.
I know, I know, it's America and they've a federal system and it's different over there. But the principle is absolutely clear - as many decisions as is possible should be made as close as you can get to the people affected, at a level where those people not only know who the decision makers are but, as Tim Worstall once put it, know where they go for a beer on a Friday night (Tim called it Bjorn's Beer Effect).

Devolution is not about directing some national government funding through some sort of regional or city-regional polity overseen by a grand and self-important mayor (whose eye is as likely to be on national power as it is on the interests of the millions his mayoralty serves).

Devolution is not about a grand committee of council leaders administering, with a nod to unelected business representatives, some sort of national government provided fund intended to promote local growth (even local growth badged as "inclusive").

Devolution is not about allowing local councils to keep local taxes but not to set the level of those taxes or having that level capped. Or for that matter not letting them set rents for their houses, charges for their services or fees for their functions.

Devolution is not having a system of local government where a National Government Minister can, almost on a whim, intervene or impose on the local council simply because of some negative press coverage.

Devolution is not having local government as, essentially, a mere agent of national government policy (and a convenient scapegoat for when that national policy turns out not to work very well).

Devolution is not a system where the policies of services local councils are providing get determined by unelected national inspectorates and QUANGOs.

And devolution isn't scrapping small, locally-focused councils and creating huge, less accountable, less transparent and less accessible authorities.

Instead of arguing for actual devolution back to local councils, what we have is an unseemly scramble to get one of those there mayors (a painful and, as yet inconclusive, process here in Yorkshire). Not because having a mayor is a good idea, improves democracy, extends accountability, and increases public participation. Nope, we want a mayor because, without one, we might miss out on some crumbs of investment from national government - cash for shiny new trains, subsidies for our pet (and valueless) 'green economy' schemes and money for us to carry on pretending that there's any relationship between universities and business innovation. This is not devolution, it's just a pretty pathetic game of 'chase the money'.

We could do so much better.


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