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.