On Friday, the Coalition announced yet more devolution to Wales. An extensive package in fact, even though, as Plaid Cymru have noted, it falls short of the ‘going rate’ for devolution in the UK. Compared to Scotland or Northern Ireland, they’re right about that. Meanwhile, England continues to bring up the rear. Channel 4 News reported this week on the devolution of NHS funding to Greater Manchester, worrying itself over whether letting local folk make their own decisions marks ‘the end of the NHS’. Presumably because Scotland and Wales, with their devolved health services, are self-evidently national but Manchester is not. And presumably having forgotten the extent to which the NHS was delivered through local councils until 1974.
Confused by it all? With good reason. There’s no overall plan, and it’s easy to claim that failing to plan is planning to fail. The wrong plan though is worse than no plan, and we’ve seen in the Prescott zones what the wrong plan looks like. Giving folk what they ask for and not trying to rush them into accepting more makes sense. But that will result, imminently, in a great deal of disappointment when local politicians ask for too little and their neighbours pull out in front of them. Cardiff – and all of Wales – can benefit from the higher ambitions that national sentiment has inspired. Bristol – and all of Wessex – will continue to worry about such things as whose are the wheelie bins on the opposite side of the street.
So we should raise our sights above mere localism. Partly because ‘localism’ has clearly failed. The promise of real localism made by the Coalition has been comprehensively manipulated, redefined and betrayed. It’s one of the greatest of the lies for which the Blue Tories and the Yellow Tories deserve to be punished in May. Not, of course, by backing the Red Tories, for whom real, unbridled localism is the very opposite of their own ideals.
Localism would seem to be the opposite of centralism. Yet paradoxically, local power can, under pressure from tight budgets, rising expectations and the opportunities and challenges of new technology, sometimes lead to more centralisation. We’ve seen that in the fire service, where this week Wiltshire voted to merge its brigade with Dorset’s. Devon and Somerset have already merged theirs and all four counties are now involved in joint working with Hampshire. North of the border, the SNP government has created a single fire brigade and a single territorial constabulary for the whole of Scotland, with effect from April 2013.
Instinctively, our own sympathies are with those who wish to keep things local and we won’t be fooled by arguments that are artificially constrained by a poor financial settlement from London. Reducing the cost of public services shouldn’t be confused with increasing their cost-effectiveness. We don’t want poorer services so that some financier can go on a binge with the ‘savings’. But we are all about subsidiarity – if some things work better over a wider area then let’s look at the pros and cons. Between 1941 and 1948, Great Britain had a single National Fire Service, a temporary response to the Blitz and the consequent need for unified direction and inter-operability of equipment. Today’s challenges, ranging from terrorist attacks to climate change, will also call into question the right scale for organising a response.
What we are seeing – something to which the Coalition’s anti-regionalists are determined to turn a blind eye – is the emergence of a new tier of governance that is larger than the county. In Devon and Somerset it isn’t just the fire brigades that have merged. There is a joint Local Enterprise Partnership – ‘Heart of the South West’. In November 2014, the archives and museums functions passed out of county hands to a new charity, the South West Heritage Trust. Along with the privatisation of English Heritage in April 2015 this is also part of a trend, as our past ceases to be recognised as the root of our common identity and returns to being the plaything of wealthy philanthropists.
Some may see all of this as a softening-up of the county councils for abolition in favour of smaller unitary councils. It certainly works in that direction, floating off those constraints of history and larger-scale operation that might get in the way. Specifically in the case of archives, there is a national drive for larger, more resilient organisations able to make the most of changes such as digitisation, while still being able to offer a community-focused service from one or more outlets per shire. The leading local archæological societies remain shire-based and will presumably continue to act as a safeguard of shire identity. The politics of other services, such as transport or education, often seems to have a different focus as towns compete for investment. Party politics also comes into it: the FibDems are stronger in the east of Somerset than in the west, which in the past has given them cause to demand a break-up of the county council along party lines.
We’ve pointed not once, not twice, but thrice, to the evidence that regionalisation is continuing despite Coalition denials. County-level services are being passed up to a wider tier that has no direct democratic accountability. Regional assemblies could give it that accountability, while also providing the framework for devolving substantial powers now hoarded by Whitehall. Just as national devolution has done in Scotland and Wales. Failing to anticipate this and to plan for it isn’t just planning to fail. When we look ahead we may be tempted to think that we’re planning for change. The reality is that we’re planning in change. It’s happening all around us. Our claim to the future has to be staked now.