Saturday, November 15, 2014

May It Be

Thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 we know that the next General Election will be on 7th May 2015.  This means that small parties with few resources and little flexibility now have the same chance to plan ahead as the London-based big battalions with their ear to the ground at Westminster. 

WR President Colin Bex and Secretary-General David Robins were in Bridgwater today, in one of the Party’s possible target seats.  Bridgwater is a much under-rated place, proud of its past and with good reason but, as a working-class town hit by plant closures, also one concerned about its future.  There were some cracking good conversations to be had on the main shopping streets, and real interest in an alternative to the status quo.

Colin was being shadowed by an independent film production company looking to follow him throughout the campaign.  Along with the flag, they proved to be a valuable visual prompt to passing members of the public to stop and talk.

After Bridgwater, Colin travelled on to Truro for the Mebyon Kernow Annual Conference, an event WR members try to attend whenever possible. With the Cornish now recognised as a national minority and the campaign for a Cornish Assembly again making waves, it can only be a matter of time before those in the English regions look closely at their Celtic neighbours and start to ask why they can’t have some of that new politics too. Our power.  Our wealth.  Let's have them back.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Little Things Please Little Minds

The Scots recently held a referendum on independence.  They discussed what currency to use, whether to join NATO, and what to do about Trident.

BBC West’s televised debate on devolution this week took a different approach.  At one point, the politicians on the panel were challenged with the problem of different wheelie bins on opposite sides of the same street in Kingswood, on the Bristol fringe.  It’s a common enough phenomenon on the boundaries between London boroughs but Londoners have other things to get excited about.  Like what to spend our taxes on next.

Anyone watching from Dorset or Wiltshire must have been deeply disappointed that Bristol hogged the limelight.  It wasn’t even as if the politicians were that well-informed.  South Gloucestershire’s Leader went on about the 1,000-year-old county boundaries, unaware that Bristol’s boundary with its rural neighbours dates from 1951.  A long time ago now, but not before the Norman Conquest.

What this clearly wasn’t was a debate on devolution.  Not until the very end, when the Wessex Wyvern was raised and a show of hands sought on whether or not we need the same powers as Scotland.  The ‘No’ vote won, but a surprisingly large number of hands went up for ‘Yes’, considering that this was a proposition the programme-makers had largely sought to bury beneath a mantle of municipal minutiae.

It could have been worse.  Viewers might have been, yet again, denied the knowledge that a regionalist alternative exists.  Viewers elsewhere in Wessex were indeed denied that knowledge.

There is no regional television channel that serves the whole of Wessex.  Its creation has been one of our aims since 1979.  Meanwhile, the BBC divides Wessex into the four sub-regions into which it naturally divides geographically.  The north-west is served from Bristol, the south-west from Plymouth, and the south-east from Southampton.  The north-east is served from Southampton too, via bases in Reading and Oxford.  The way these various stations treated the devolution issue varied enormously, illustrating one of the challenges for a regionalist party whose aspirations the centre struggles to recognise and accommodate.

BBC West, from the Bristol Cathedral Choir School, did as well as could be expected.  A range of views was aired, but the Wyvern was the only splash of colour in an otherwise drab offering.  On Twitter, the programme was variously described as dreadful, dire and dreary, with the limited capabilities of the superficial Points West format coming in for criticism.  One tweet sums up the reaction: “I wish I had gone to bed instead of watching.”

BBC South West, from Cornwall’s Eden Project, could have had a Wessex presence too.  Their researcher was in discussions with our President, Colin Bex, in late October but by early November he’d been dropped from the shortlist.  Mebyon Kernow’s Leader, Cllr Dick Cole, put in a sustained effort on the night but it would have been good to allow viewers east of the Tamar to know that they too have an alternative to the London-centric status quo.  Subsequent tweets suggested that the English south-west had been badly let down by the programme-makers – but if they will exclude the one political party that has something specific to say about the English south-west then you have to expect that.

BBC South, serving the heart of Alfred’s kingdom, was the one station where you might think a Wessex Regionalist presence would be imperative.  Apparently not.  The South didn’t even get a programme to itself, but a joint one with the South East.  One of the presenters agonised over whether the area had any coherent sense of regional identity.  Define it like that and it’s not hard to find the answer.

Now, we know that BBC stations do talk to each other.  They share contact details and get each other to film extra footage or record audio that they can pass around (and they co-produce the occasional programme, like Late Kick Off).  We hope they go on doing so.  What they seemingly do not do is share editorial perspective.  When The Case for Wessex was launched at Wantage in 2003, BBC South turned up to film the event.  Other BBC stations in Wessex declined to cover the story at all.  Not in their area.  True, Wantage is not, but Wessex is.

Politicians and media alike share a local perspective that is set within a national context.  Regions perplex them.  Too big to be local.  Too small to be national.  That’s right.  They’re something in between, the missing piece of the jigsaw, the piece whose absence explains why the governance of Britain is so dysfunctional.  Imagining the difference that having them will make is not easy, though Scotland and Wales are there to be visited should you need a model.  The benefits will be clear enough once regions are in place in England.  Those benefits will be forever denied us though, without the ability to see over the hedge.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

We Are Not London

We know where London is, but is the rest of England also London?  It seems that the London regime would like to make it so.

Manchester has a proud history and a distinctive identity.  Or used to.  Yet Greater Manchester Transport has become ‘Transport for Greater Manchester’, because that’s the word-order they now use in London.  And yesterday, George Osborne announced a Boris for Greater Manchester, just two years after the city voted down the idea of a directly elected mayor.  The new man or woman will take control of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, whose members have surrendered their democratic rights in return for a promise that a few more crumbs will be devolved to the area.

Apart from Bristol, all the big cities ordered to vote on having an elected mayor rejected the idea, but Osborne is determined to roll it out regardless, with Leeds next in his sights.  Osborne’s job, of course, is to run the Treasury so the fact that he’s now become the expert on local government structures shows how deep purely financial interests now reach into the dark heart of policy-making.  Or maybe the minister actually responsible, Yorkshireman Eric Pickles, knows better than to court controversy on the wrong side of the Pennines.

The Mayor will take over some or all of the role of Police & Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester.  Perhaps the thinking is that with more to do, he or she might even motivate voters to turn out, something they won’t do for the PCCs.  In last week’s PCC by-election in South Yorkshire, turnout was 15%.  In the first round of PCC elections in 2012, one ballot box in Newport famously contained not a single paper.  Why can’t we just dissolve the people and elect a new one?  Where’s the point in offering them anything when they’re clearly not interested?  Oh, but they are if they’re Scottish.  Scotland’s independence referendum, with an 84.5% turnout, shows that the fault doesn’t lie with the voters.  It lies with those who keep asking the wrong questions, creating new posts that no-one outside the London-based think-tanks ever asked for, disrupting local arrangements that were well understood.  Come along now children, we’re going to the polls today.  Shan’t.  But you know it’s your civic duty to sign away your power with the mark of an illiterate.  Not going to.

Well, good for them.  We’ve always had a sense of solidarity with those up north who have their whole world regularly turned upside down by the social vivisectionists in London.  Their governance, their economy, their identity, all are things to be experimented with until the region conforms to London expectations.  (Serve them right, you may well say, for voting for London parties instead of for their own and you’d be correct that they have less and less excuse now.)  So they’ll be getting a Mayor of Greater Manchester and a Mayor of West Yorkshire.  But if all of the recently established Combined Authorities for the conurbations are now to be turned into mayoralties, what of Tyneside / Wearside?  That’s one area where things are different.

There’s still plenty of talk of creating an Integrated Transport Authority for Greater Bristol – a new Avon County Council in all but name – and the idea is unlikely to go away any time soon.  The same thinking resurfaces at times like this in South Hampshire.  The fact is that it’s yesterday’s solution.  Tyne & Wear had an Integrated Transport Authority until this year, when it was abolished in favour of the North East Combined Authority, a wider body taking in the surrounding counties.  If you want better transport, it has to be better for everyone, not just the cities.  It has to be about developing a transport network, and for that you need a regional perspective.  The North East Combined Authority is a step in that direction, being not much smaller in area than the regional assembly that voters rejected in 2004, though it lacks direct elections or significant new powers.

So when Osborne completes his roll-out, will there be a Mayor of the North East?  Where does the nonsense end?  Ed Miliband, not wishing to be outflanked, is promising powers to arbitrary groupings of shires, to be known as ‘county regions’.  Will they be getting mayors too?  The Mayor of Cornwall & Isles of Scilly?  The Mayor of Heart of the South West?  With Manchester Londonised, and Leeds next, is English local government all doomed to find transparent, deliberative democracy phased out in favour of an elective dictatorship of personality politicians forming a scrum round the Treasury’s big ball of money?  Rugby is perhaps the wrong analogy.  This isn’t Rugby.  This is Eton.  (Or maybe St Paul’s.)

David Cameron has bought-in to the current fad for empowering England’s big cities because it enables any more radical action to be kicked into the long grass.  Shame on Ed Miliband for not seeing this.  It’s a fad however that deserves to be comprehensively deconstructed:

1.                  Cameron is not to be trusted on decentralisation.  He promised ‘localism’: an end to Whitehall interference in local decision-making.  Instead he has allowed Whitehall to obtain new powers to interfere, while making none of the really big changes that are needed.  Whole Whitehall departments such as Communities and Education have no other significant function but to interfere in local decision-making.  They wouldn’t be missed.  So why the delay in scrapping them?

2.                  The ‘cities first’ agenda isn't about fairness.  It degrades the importance of the lives lived by those of us who are not in the big cities.  If cities are trusted to make their own decisions, why hold back the countryside and small towns?  Have they nothing to contribute?  Why do they need to be micro-managed from London if others don’t?

3.                  It will be nice for some to get more powers, but aren’t these the same powers – or some of them – that have been taken away from local government over the past 70 years, by Labour efficiency men and Tory ideologues?  Don’t the strings attached make any concessions meaningless?

4.                  The idea of cities as drivers of economic growth is flavour of the month.  But other economic geographies are available – like the South Coast Metropole or the M4 Corridor.  These are geographies that transcend local government boundaries but fit naturally within the boundaries of a Wessex region.  Should radicals even be welcoming the idea of economic growth anyway?  Can we be sure that it’s not just a euphemism for environmental, cultural and social devastation, here or abroad?  Who benefits, besides the bankers?

5.                  City-regions, whatever their boundaries or powers, are just a different kind of local government.  They're a distraction from the business of real regionalists, which is to devolve power to the nations and regions of Britain.  Cities won’t have assemblies with law-making powers and exclusive control of the NHS, education policy, regional railways or the environment.  Cities deserve more power, but so do we all.  Regional devolution is the bold, substantial way to deliver that.

6.                  Applying extreme surgery to local government in order to replicate the ‘London effect’ is missing the point.  London is more successful and other cities less so not because it has an elected mayor but because London houses the UK Government and benefits from its largesse.  A Boris for every big city is no more than constitutional facadism if that regional concentration of power and resources is not addressed.  A Boris first, then we might think about devolution, is the kind of insulting, controlling behaviour that proves London is not serious about sharing.

The cities agenda is intimately linked to the roll-out of elected mayors.  And that's very much about taking decisions out of the public glare of the council chamber and into closed rooms where Big Business and Big Government can do deals with the lone, bullyable individual in whom all power is vested.  This isn't about opening up democracy; it's all about shutting it down.

And it doesn’t matter which party is in power.  A ruling-class consensus emerged sometime in the 1990s that English local government was to be changed over to an American / continental model, something that had been discussed on the fringes of power since at least the 1970s.  Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, on the other hand, have no elected mayors, but devolution there provides an alternative focus for strategic decision-making that arguably makes them unnecessary.

The collegiate style that has served England well for centuries is an anomaly.  But how to get rid of it?  Blair tried the fanfare approach.  Choose how to be governed, by demanding a referendum!  Few found the offer appealing.  Cameron / Clegg applied more pressure.  Compulsory referenda, with the previous right to undo the decision withdrawn.  Bristol apart, it still didn’t work.  So Osborne is sent in to twist the arms of civic leaders until they say that yes, in the name of our unconsulted electorates, we volunteer to give you everything if you’ll give us just a little.

There may or may not be a good case for elected mayors but there probably isn’t.  The fact that only calling in the heavies produces results suggests that the case is not one normally found compelling.  The fact that other countries do things their way isn’t a convincing argument in itself for following suit.  If it were, then any comparison with American or continental practice would reveal the existence of state or regional governments.  And where are they in the Coalition’s harmonisation scheme?  The case for following foreign practice in that respect is much, much stronger than the case for elected mayors.  Not least because it would be a fundamental shift in the location of power, rather than a reshuffling of an existing pack to reduce transparency and increase the scope for keeping local government on a tight leash.

Analysis of what’s going on is, sadly, far too easy.  Our politics is built upon the idea that power and money reside in London and that our best chance of seeing those things used for our benefit is to bow deeply and tug our forelocks hard. 

The London regime has no power but that which our votes give it.  The London regime has no money but that which our taxes give it.  (Even its stupendous debts would be impossible to run up without a reasonable expectation of them being honoured at some point.)  While we have no quarrel with the ordinary folk of London, a new politics, a politics of regional renaissance, must work ceaselessly to deny it both these things.  Because we too, in all of the regions, have a voice to be heard and a vision of a better life to be lived.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Just Watch It

Media interest continues, BBC Bristol and BBC Wiltshire both seeking interviews this week.  David Garmston from BBC Points West went to Longleat to record an interview with our veteran founder, Lord Bath for Sunday Politics West.  It took up 3 minutes, 42 seconds of a 1 hour, 10 minute programme filled mainly with much less interesting stuff.  (Catch it on iPlayer, at 50:32 in.)

Yesterday saw filming for another BBC programme, More Power to the West?, again fronted by David Garmston, for broadcast on Guy Fawkes Night.  Oddly, according to the BBC website, this programme and its equivalent for BBC South West (Cornwall and Devon) are both 40 minutes long.  The BBC South equivalent is 10 minutes long.  Is the attention span of eastern Wessex really that much shorter than western Wessex?

The format yesterday was a four-person panel – Parliamentarians from the three main London parties plus George Ferguson, Independent Mayor of Bristol – with an audience mostly made up of local politicians, businessfolk and experts of one kind or another.  The audience proved to be a lot more lively than the panel.  The three main parties all agree that decentralisation is good, which begs the question why none of them do a thing about it when in power (other than to do the opposite while pretending they’re not).  No wonder they’re now so widely despised.

From the start it was clear that Wessex at last had a chance of a receptive airing, David Robins being invited to contribute to the debate and to unfurl the Wyvern for the cameras.  Leanne Wood, Leader of Plaid Cymru, said it looked like a Welsh dragon.  Cue to point out the number of legs (two legs Wessex, four legs Wales) and that ours is just as ancient.  There’s no doubt that the Wyvern, with its warm, bold colours and sweeping lines, makes excellent television and a lasting impression.

A now recurrent theme is the realisation that Wessex provides a ready-made answer to the question of how to devolve power in our part of England.  An optimist might even say that this is an idea whose time has come.  We don’t need a Labour-style constitutional convention to hold back implementation any longer. 

A realist – aware of the history of the Celtic countries – is more likely to take the view that a trans-generational struggle is just beginning.  The London regime has many centuries of experience in how to prevent necessary change.  Yesterday’s debate was a useful step on the road to change but was memorable mainly for the low aspirations evident among our region’s elected politicians.  Too bruised by the oppressive system they try to work within, they haven’t the room to raise their sights.  In contrast, we don’t want negotiation with our London masters over city deals or combined authorities.  We want their rule out of the region at the point of a pitchfork, never to be allowed back.

The programme airs on BBC1 on 5th November at 10:35 pm.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Reasons to be Regional

Two common objections to regionalism are that another tier of government means more politicians and more cost.  It needn’t in fact mean either.

First though, let’s be a bit more broad-minded.  We need government to be more effective and efficient – but to achieve that you need to invest, politically in the right people and financially in the right resources.

More politicians aren’t necessarily a bad thing.  Fewer politicians mean fewer ways to scrutinise government and hold it to account.  Over the past 50 years we have seen repeated cuts in the number of local councillors, in the range of services they oversee and in the power that ordinary, backbench councillors have to make decisions.  So, to sum up, we have less democracy.  We have less ability as voters to influence what public money is spent on.

More cost isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Cost is not the same thing as waste.  If we want better services, or even services no worse than those we have now, then they have to be paid for.  But a system of government that pretends it can reduce costs by centralising decisions is missing something.  It is missing the fact that centralised solutions tend to be standardised solutions that might not be what we need or want.  They will be shaped by what the centre thinks we should have, and the centre’s thought in turn will be shaped by lobbies whose outlook we may not share.

Back to the devolution debate.  Politicians are looking for easy answers, by empowering existing local councils, or at worst setting up joint authorities, or maybe sweeping up all the powers into the hands of a metro-mayoral Caesar that bankers can trust to do the right thing.  But localism, as we have learnt, is a lie.  Localities are only being empowered to make the decisions that the centre would have made anyway if it had had direct control.  And even in theory, there are practical limits to localism because big, strategic decisions are beyond the capacity of a fragmented local government system.  Councils aren’t going to get powers to re-shape the NHS or the railways.  They aren’t going to be able to make laws or set income tax rates.  Is the devolution debate in England a sham, just like localism?

Of course it is, if a new tier of government is ruled out on ideological grounds.  Had that been the starting point, the Scottish Parliament and the London, Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies could never have been created.  The number that matters isn’t the number of tiers.  It’s the overall cost of government – and the extent to which government is seen to deliver what it promises.

Will regionalism mean more politicians?  That, ultimately, is a political choice.  One way forward is to argue that if two-thirds of decisions are moved out of Westminster into regional hands, you then cut the number of MPs by two-thirds to match.  Since most Assembly Members would live within commuting distance of the assembly venue, there’d be none of the nonsense of flipped second homes in London necessitated by having a constituency hundreds of miles away.  (In a smaller House of Commons, everyone would get a place to sit down if they turned up for a popular debate, which isn’t possible today.)

So on to cost.  Having a regional assembly will cost us more, won’t it?  Here are five reasons why not.  It comes down to political will.  A Wessex assembly is likely to be run by politicians with enough sense not to impose unnecessary burdens on the electorate and so the savings below are savings they are likely to make.  They are savings that an assembly government led by the Wessex Regionalist Party would certainly prioritise.

1.         Moving government out of London cuts costs

That's why much of the back office work is already done in places like Wales or Northumbria.  Labour and property costs are lower there and there is very limited need to travel back and forth to London.  But devolution means the top jobs have to move out too.  Some of the mandarins who currently advise Ministers in Whitehall will instead be advising a Wessex government.  These are jobs that command big salaries.  That spending power is then put into the Wessex economy, not the London economy.  It’s also worth noting that savings aren’t confined to the political sphere – the media would also have to become less London-obsessed and there would be a bigger role for the regional newsrooms and production centres busy following debates in the regional assemblies.  Lobbyists too would need to decentralise.

2.         Integrating the region manages costs better

Regional administration already exists.  What is missing is regional government.  Most government employees do not work in London.  The work of government is carried on in the regions through a tangle of quangos and local offices, all of which could be rationalised as part of an integrated regional government.  Something similar happened in local government in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the various Improvement Commissioners, School Boards, Boards of Guardians and the like were replaced by unified councils levying a unified rate.  Integration saves money.  The Welsh Government has merged three of its environmental quangos into one and delegated some of its own powers to it in order to save £158 million over the first ten years.  That’s money that can then be spent on services or used to reduce taxation.

It’s often said that an assembly will need an expensive new headquarters.  That’s not how public sector property works.  The stock of public buildings turns over constantly as older buildings are replaced by new ones with lower running costs.  Eventually, the same money will be spent on new buildings by the UK as by a Wessex assembly.

Meanwhile, Wessex civil servants will go on working in the same places that they worked as UK civil servants.  Assembly meetings can be rotated around our leading cities if that’s seen as a way to prevent any one of them fancying itself as a new London.  Winchester is our historic capital, Bristol is our largest city, Bath already has its Assembly Rooms.  But if we’re serious about a new, decentralised approach to government then we need to re-think the whole idea of a capital city.  Along the lines of a network that allows all areas to have a share in the work of governing Wessex.  That means departments locating where their main customers are, or the geographical focus of their work.  It means politicians being willing to travel and able to see things not just from their own constituents’ point of view. 

This isn’t revolutionary.  Germany and the Netherlands are two examples of countries where the work of government is shared out.  Germany’s Constitutional Court is in Karlsruhe, not Berlin – deliberately distanced from the other institutions of government.  The Dutch capital is Amsterdam but the seat of government is The Hague; the broadcasting centre is Hilversum.

3.         A democratic region delivers better value for money

The point of devolution is the power to do things differently.  Not only does regional administration already exist, so too does a regional budget, even if it’s currently split between numerous government departments.  A Wessex assembly can see to it that the money is used wisely, setting its own priorities, which may well differ from those handed down from Whitehall.  With law-making powers too, an assembly can really tailor services to what its area needs.

4.         A strong region can defend its budget

When Michael Gove was Education Secretary, he dreamt up a plan to fund every school in England directly from Whitehall, cutting out local education authorities.  The bargaining power of a single LEA against the might of Whitehall is limited.  The bargaining power of a single headteacher is non-existent.  Regions big enough to stand up to Whitehall bullying will get that money out of London.  They will have the resources to commission their own research to challenge official figures and to brief the media with it.  It will no longer be a one-sided dialogue.  Regions with taxation powers will be guaranteed a degree of financial freedom from Treasury interference.

Local government services have borne the brunt of austerity, while the UK State protects its own.  The Welsh Assembly too has seen its finances cut but within its budget it has found the money to increase local government spending by 3%, at a time when English local government is looking to cut spending by 7%.  Applying the Welsh model to Wessex and other English regions could create a coalition of opposition to the City-driven priorities of the London regime.

5.         A region understands its businesses better

Far from being a burden on the region’s businesses, a Wessex assembly would be in a strong position to help them succeed.  Its powers would include education and training, transport, housing, planning, economic development, tourism and the arts, agriculture, forestry and fisheries.  It would be well placed to take on new responsibilities that may emerge at the regional scale, such as oversight of infrastructure and public utilities.  The more powers that are devolved, the more incentive the region has to make a success of them because the more that success will be reflected in the assembly’s own rising revenues.

Businesses that have a hard time convincing BIS or the banks in London can expect a different reception in Wessex, especially if they can show how their plans fit with specifically regional aspirations.  A Wessex assembly will be one part of a wider expression of the Wessex ‘brand’, with tourism in particular benefiting from a more coherent narrative but with related industries like food & drink and music also potential beneficiaries.

There are many reasons to be regional, but doom and gloom are not among them.  The small scale, territorial integration and flexibility of action that come with being a region are precisely what’s needed to respond to the challenges of the 21st century.

Silenced in Court

The Torygraph yesterday reminded us that the Conservatives may be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats but they are far from being liberal.  (Democracy isn’t often their strong point either.)

Theresa May’s proposal for ‘Extremism Disruption Orders’ could see courts banning speech that’s judged to be a bit too free.  George Osborne has described this new tool as a means to deal with those who don’t break any laws.  Yes, he did.  We can’t have folk running around doing stuff that’s legal.

You could of course join Labour.  Where you’ll find Jack Straw arguing that Scotland’s ‘No’ vote justifies a declaration that separatism is now unconstitutional.  He hasn’t explicitly said he’d like to ban the SNP but that’s the direction of thought.  Fortunately, it’s not the direction of Scottish politics.

Won’t the European Convention on Human Rights come to our defence?  No.  Article 10 (freedom of expression) is “subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”  There’s not a lot left once you’ve deducted all that.  Note that ‘the interests of territorial integrity’ are more important than freedom of expression.  Jack Straw couldn’t have put it better.

As Joseph Stalin did put it, ideas are more powerful than guns; we would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?  In Wessex, we’re used to seeing things being banned and we’ll be ready.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Pop Goes the Weasel

“Governments with money centralise and claim the credit.  Governments without cash decentralise and spread the blame.  Those are not the views of a hardened media cynic. They are what I was told by one of the Tories’ top policy wonks before the election.”
Nick Robinson, BBC Political Editor, December 2010

Surprised?  Why?  The masters of the universe move in circles where cynicism is a sign of sophistication.  The double standards are everywhere: privatise the profits, socialise the losses; what goes wrong is the last lot’s fault, what goes right is all down to us; introduce a Localism Bill, then use it to set limits to local discretion.  The long-awaited discussion on English devolution turns out to be a discussion on English votes for English laws.  Devolution from the centre to the centre.  Westminster, faced with the unpleasant necessity of discussing devolution, turns inwards and debates instead its own procedures and party interests.

It’s more than tiresome and we believe the lies less and less.  The Lord Mayor of London insists that she is not a member of the establishment.  If she’s merely a member of the Outer Party, what is it you have to do to join the Inner Party?

Don’t despair.  Politics does work.  If, and only if, you vote for change and then keep on voting for change.  Tony Blair’s government was as centralist in outlook as any but was forced by inherited circumstances to devolve power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  The political dynamic produced one other devolved assembly, for the one area of England that needs one least.  London.

There continues to be a debate on whether, in a regional context, the Greater London Authority – the Mayor and Assembly – is the right answer to the question of London’s governance.  There are many Londons, some smaller and some larger than Greater London.  Other European capital regions – notably in France, Italy and Spain – are larger than the urban area alone.  But for Labour, and for Ken Livingstone in particular, there was unfinished business left over from Thatcher’s spiteful abolition of the GLC.  Putting it back together (but not too recognisably) was a political priority that also made a lot of sense administratively.  After 14 years of chaos, Thatcher’s City backers were persuaded that even the return of Red Ken was better than a decapitated capital.

The result is England’s only regional assembly.  Which creates some interesting anomalies.  Hilary Benn recently coined the ‘West Ealing Question’ – why can an Ealing MP not vote on buses in Ealing (a matter devolved to the Mayor) but can vote on buses in Benn’s Leeds constituency?  We might question whether MPs anywhere should be voting on buses or whether in a properly decentralised country they would find better things to do.  But buses are a good example to use.  London was the only part of England to be exempted from bus deregulation in 1985: congestion obviously is for the other man.  It’s the only area where the colour of the buses is specified by the authorities, because London’s iconic heritage must be protected while that of lesser cities was long ago sacrificed to the free market.

Wessex and London have about the same population.  So we should have no difficulty in claiming the same powers.  What might be more of a struggle is to achieve a fair funding formula that doesn’t favour the capital as present arrangements clearly do.  The Barnett formula doesn’t apply to the distribution of public spending within England.  So London is free to grab whatever its lobbying can obtain.  This is an issue we have covered in a number of posts, so let’s recap, with a spot of updating and expanding.

London contributes 22% of UK Gross Value Added, while Wessex contributes 13%, Scotland 8% and Wales 3%.  Wessex, with roughly the population of Scotland and Wales combined, comes out where we might expect it to be.  So why does London appear to be storming ahead, the economic engine of the UK?  Do its workers really go for it that much harder than everyone else?  Any analysis of what’s going on must question how much of the economic activity that ends up there has any geographical reason to be there, assuming that it was ever real in the first place.  London’s economic success cannot be entirely unrelated to its role as the political capital of a unitary state with access to the taxable resources of the whole UK.  Wessex folk even subsidise its sewers.  No doubt we shall subsidise its defences against sea level rise too until we can take it no more.

According to the National Infrastructure Plan, planned infrastructure spending per head in London is ten times that in Wessex.  Statisticians argue over just how big London’s lead over the rest really is – it’s easily pushed downwards by adding in nuclear power projects whose final customers are many miles away from the plant – but no-one can doubt that it’s massive.  And it’s set to get worse.

In 2010/11, London, with 15% of England’s population, got 34% of public spending on transport.  The South West, with 10% of the population, got 6%.  (The South West is the fourth smallest of the Prescott zones by population but received the least transport spending per head.)  Devolution, linked to a fair funding formula, could therefore roughly double our money.  Bristol might even get a real metro, with underground stations and wholly new lines, instead of the toytown version which is all that can be afforded while London helps itself to our taxes.  Instead of HS2, we could start to put places back on the rail network for the first time in 50 years.  Places like Gosport, claimed as the largest town in Britain without an operational railway station.  London is NOT the only desirable destination on the railways yet national thinking still assumes that it is.

Arts funding – from the London-based Arts Council and DCMS – is even more scandalous.  In 2012/13, London got £69 per head.  The rest of England got £4.60 per head, a ratio of 15:1.  The National Lottery was supposed to correct this geographical imbalance.  But what do we find there?  £165 per head in London, £47 per head in the rest of England: still 4:1. 

There’s also a qualitative aspect to cultural funding.  If budgets are centrally controlled, they will deliver the culture that the centre thinks we ought to have, not the one we choose for ourselves.  If quangocrats in London haven’t heard of Wessex culture then they aren’t going to fund it, because it won’t tick any of the boxes.  A similar attitude rules in planning, where development is always viewed as having a positive cultural impact.  That’s because the new facilities that it can fund, for cultural products to be displayed or performed, are usually more measurable in standardised terms than what’s destroyed to make room for the development.

The Treasury publishes regional data for what it calls ‘identifiable public expenditure’.  That isn’t the same as public expenditure by region.  Things that go on in London but are deemed to be for the indivisible benefit of the whole UK aren’t included, so London’s share will be an under-estimate.  About 14% of spending is ‘non-identifiable’ in this way.  It includes debt payments, some defence items and overseas representation but there are also costs, such as tax collection, that must have a geographical base within the UK.

It’s this under-reporting that allows Boris Johnson, for example, to present London as a net contributor to the rest of the UK by at least £5 billion annually.  If non-identifiable spending comes to 14% of the total, and that £5 billion is from the fiscal year 2009, when total spending was £634 billion, then 14% (£89 billion) leaves plenty of room in which to lose a mere £5 billion very easily.  We need far better politicians, of course, but it seems we also need far better accountants, to track what really happens to all of the ‘non-identifiable’ money that is spent within the UK.

Despite the under-reporting, in 2012/13 London got 107% of the UK average spending per head on services.  The South West got 94%, the South East 87%.  London got 135% of the average spent on economic affairs (substantially more than any other English region), including 184% of the average on transport.  It also got 158% of the average on recreation and culture and 157% of the average on public order and safety.  London exceeded the average in 10 out of the 17 statistical categories in PESA 2014, Table 9.16.  Nowhere else in England was so consistently well-funded and agricultural spending (15% of average) was the only category in which London fell below 79% of the average.  The South West was well-funded only on agriculture, defence and environmental protection (presumed to include nuclear decommissioning) and fell below 79% in 6 categories.  The South East did well only on science & technology and defence and fell below 79% in 8 categories.  The high spending in some northern regions – mainly on employment, health and social protection – can be seen as a measure not of the UK’s success but of its chronic failure.

Does this distribution of spending reflect need?  Not necessarily, because ‘need’ is itself a contested idea.  If London ‘needs’ more money because its population is growing and the city is pulling in poor folk from across the globe then perhaps it should stop.  London’s environmental unsustainability is being paid for by the rest of us who are doing things right.  The more we pay to deal with London’s infrastructural shortfalls, the more it grows, the more attention it attracts and the bigger the problems become.

If London ‘needs’ more money because the cost of providing services is higher then the same applies.  Do those services need to be in London?  London’s high costs are caused by its over-expanded economy relative to its territory.  Those who are convinced that regional assemblies would increase the cost of government should reflect on the lower property and labour costs that would be payable if more of government were done outside, and less of it inside, the M25.

Taxation is often presented as simply a class issue but it has a strong geographical basis that impacts on how daily life is lived in areas dominated by the affluence over which London presides.  Half of all Inheritance Tax receipts in the UK come from London and the South East.  That isn’t necessarily the result of thrift: much of it will be unearned ‘wealth’ produced by rising house prices, as government commentary makes clear.  (That the Prescott zones next in line after those two are the South West and the East of England is perhaps a reflection of their attractiveness as retirement zones for an ex-London elite.)  In London your house can make more than you do.  So no wonder the political pressure to abolish Inheritance Tax is unlikely to go away.

Labour’s plans for a ‘mansion tax’ have been labelled an attack on the middle classes, because in central London all house prices are mansion prices, aren’t they?  One estimate is that 85,500 of the 110,000 houses likely to be hit are in London.  Better by far that those provincials pay more than that Londoners should find themselves a bit strapped for cash, don’t you think?

Well, no.  It’s time we had a property taxation system that adequately reflects ability to pay.  Council Tax banding only reaches the foothills of serious wealth.  For as long as that happens, it means that the most regressive of taxes gives up the ghost before it has a chance to bite those whose accountants and lawyers can get them out of paying most other taxes.  So London goes on being a magnet for some of the world’s worst economic psychopaths.  The cost of living in London continues to rise for everyone there – and indirectly for everyone not there so long as we pay the difference through UK taxation and distorted public spending patterns.  Those spending patterns remain inevitable without real regional power to hold a London-obsessed Treasury to account.

The Union works very well for London.  The question the rest of us should ask is what we get out of it.  If we don’t like the way the money goes, then we need to organise politically to get it back.  The inflated weasel needs to feel the press of the pin.