Friday, September 28, 2012

The Right to Decide

During the summer we briefly mentioned here the Commission on a Bill of Rights, specifically its consultation on what rights should be included in such a Bill, if the Coalition agrees that it would like one.

The consultation ends this weekend; the following is the response we have submitted:

“The Wessex Regionalist Party wishes to respond to questions 6 and 7 in the Commission’s Second Consultation Paper.

In addition to individual rights, the law should protect the collective right of self-government of communities expressed through their elected authorities. Westminster should have no power to dictate to such authorities how they organise themselves, how much money they can raise in taxation or what they can spend it on. Administrative review of their decisions – such as a developer’s right to appeal against the refusal of planning permission – should also be outlawed.

Such a move would help embed subsidiarity in English law. While the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty enables pressure from European institutions to be resisted, it remains hypocritical so long as it can be wielded to the detriment of local or regional autonomy.”

Friday, September 21, 2012

Begging for Change

Sir Peter Hall, Bartlett professor of planning and regeneration at University College London, wrote this week about ‘the Games’ that “despite the torch-bearing preliminaries across the land, and apart from Olympic and Paralympic events that were scattered around south-east England, this was a London event and a London triumph.”

“This,” he continued, “can only intensify the division, familiar from the daily drip-feed of news items, between London and its wider South East hinterland, and the rest of the national economy. Two recent samples: house prices are falling everywhere, except in London; and the world’s top ten universities include four from the UK – two in London, plus Oxford and Cambridge. As Boris Johnson is fond of saying, London’s global pre-eminence isn’t simply based on the bankers: the city also includes top universities, top hospitals, top TV producers, top theatre, top almost everything in every league.”

Sir Peter’s conclusion? “It doesn’t have to be that way. Berlin is the capital of Germany, but is far from its most successful city. Germany is the land of great provincial cities: larger ones such as Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich, and smaller ones like Freiburg. But to achieve that in the UK, you need to rescue the dreaded r-word from the dustbin, and reconstruct the national economy around strong regions, which no British government has dared seriously to contemplate.”

The implication seems to be that if only we had a British government that would “dare” seriously contemplate the demotion of London then all would be well. Indeed it would. London didn’t get where it is today by its own efforts. It got there by using, across ten centuries, the spending power of the taxpayer-funded institutions of a certain unitary state whose capital it happens to be. Those are institutions it has learned how to manipulate to maintain that position.  And having done so, it has gone on to create a climate of public opinion that defers to their role in arbitrating what can and cannot be done locally and regionally.  To hear the great and the good pontificate on a lack of talent in the provinces to trust with decision-making does beg the question of who is qualified to judge talent and why.

The reason why Germany is more to Sir Peter Hall’s liking is that its development was not directed from the capital but by a strong tradition of provincial self-rule. So expecting the British government seriously to contemplate what it has never seriously contemplated before is the triumph of hope over experience. It won’t happen. Power isn’t surrendered; it is taken.

That is why those who call upon the London regime to mend its ways, or who suggest we should work within the Labour Party to put some backbone into its regional policy, are bound to be disappointed. We have no true allies on the inside. The only sure way forward is to build the world we wish to see from the bottom up. Working to strengthen our coherence as a region. Learning from other historic regions and small nations with whom we stand in solidarity. Wishing the London regime as much ill-will as it visits upon us. You don’t have to be a separatist to recognise that nothing succeeds like secession.

Responsibility Without Power

We are grateful to an MK blogger in Penzance for a careful analysis of what the Coalition’s pseudo-localism means in practice. It amounts to devolving the running of services, and the making of cuts to them, without devolving the money that used to pay for them. Local politicians get the blame for the consequences, while central government lies back, puts its feet up, and passes the money saved to the bankers as interest on imaginary debts.

We can see this scenario developing as follows. Public services are increasingly channelled through local councils, co-operating sub-regionally for economies of scale. Safeguards will be put in place against communities interpreting localism literally. One is to privatise and outsource actual provision to the multi-nationals, to break any link between the services provided and a sense of local identity. (Welcome to McSchool.) Another is to prevent sub-regional co-operation going regional, that is to say, accumulating at a geographical scale large enough to threaten those in power. You do that by insisting that, while the Thames Valley or the South Coast Metropole may be real enough, ‘obviously’ Berkshire has nothing at all in common with Dorset. (But identifying with England is OK, despite it being five times bigger than Wessex, because TPTB have that one sewn up.)

Meanwhile, we continue to pay our taxes to London but get fewer and fewer services in return. In short, we prop up an insolvent regime. Until the happy day we choose to repudiate it and all its works.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Freedom to Fly!

We have explored earlier the unsatisfactory legal status of the Wyvern flag under London rule. We have noted the reluctance of the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles to consider any deregulation that might permit ‘regional flags’ to be flown without express consent. We have also noted that, under pressure, Pickles floated the idea at the start of this year that the flags of ‘current or historic UK traditional regions’ might be flown after all.

Today his department announced plans to deregulate a strictly limited range of territorial flags. Has Pickles managed to reconcile the need to give ground with the need to avoid endorsing the virus of English regionalism, which poses a far more vital challenge to the regime than even the sum total of Celtic devolution? Can you have regional flags without setting the ball rolling towards a truly democratic, decentralised England?

The outcome, from our point of view, is a very good one indeed. The draft proposal to deregulate the flags of ‘traditional regions’ is gone, along with any ambiguity to which that phrase might have given rise. In its place is an explicit reference to ‘the flag of Wessex’, along with those of East Anglia and certain local areas. The ‘R’ word is avoided, but the ‘W’ word, we suggest, will prove to be a far more potent concession. The new regulations are planned to take effect on 12 October. Get your flag ready now! Coming just two days before we remember Harold Godwinesson’s stand at Senlac, against the vanquishers of old Wessex, that timing could hardly be better.

Spare a thought for other regions though. We and the East Anglians are recognised, not because we did everything by the book but because we defied the book. We have flown our flag to the point where it can no longer be ignored. As is so often the case, the law has had to be changed to keep up with reality, not to shape it. So if other regions wish to follow our lead, they too need to ignore London law. It seems that the only way to get the law on your side is to break it, on as big a scale as possible. It would be so much simpler to say that ‘the flag of any territory’ may be flown, regardless of whether that territory is local, regional or national, here or abroad, recognised or not. But no, control-freakery didn’t leave in Gordon Brown’s suitcase.

The change in the regulations makes no practical difference to any committed flag-flyer, beyond providing the assurance that no joyless neighbour will report them to the council and be heard. The real difference it makes is to recognise that Wessex is not some underground movement whose existence is to be officially denied. Little by little, the mantra shrieked from on high that ‘you do realise, don’t you, that there is no such place as Wessex’ is falling still. We exist, and very soon that fact will be law.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hailing Change

Did you know that Plymouth is the only part of England outside London to have its own set of laws on taxi licensing?

We have today responded to the recent review by the Law Commission of the legislation relating to taxis and private hire vehicles. Here’s what we said:

“We note that a key issue with which the Commission is grappling is the emerging transition from a world in which laissez-faire is the dominant political philosophy to one where localism takes its place. We welcome that transition, which promises a world much more respectful of local democratic judgement and much less willing to overturn it for reasons of ideological diktat.

We are therefore disappointed that some of the Commission’s provisional proposals represent a move in the opposite direction. In particular, abolition of the long-established right to limit the number of taxi licences issued, taking account of local circumstances, would signal a continuation of the ‘Whitehall knows best’ mentality. Local discretion over policy should not, in any way, be restricted.”

That the Law Commission has its finger on the pulse to the extent that this tension is evident in its thinking is an interesting development. The London regime knows what needs to be done. Power needs to be passed to local communities, with democratic accountability through the municipal ballot box and regions, like Wessex, then acting to co-ordinate local efforts, without centralist compulsion. The parties talk the talk, but mostly fail to walk the walk. Most of the time – and this applies equally to “Labour” – they would rather hand power to global corporations, accountable only to bankers. Time, however, is running against them. A post-oil world will necessarily be a more decentralised world. And the taxis may even be horse-drawn.