The leader of what passes for the Opposition, Sir Keir “Interesting” Starmer, has revealed his cynically-titled Taking Back Control Bill, a name appropriated from the Tories whom he so resembles. Much has been made of the Bill’s commitment to Blairite “public-private partnerships”. We, naturally, picked up on the parts concerning devolution .
As is so often the case when Labour tries to do devolution, their policies soon run into the dead hand of the party’s centralising tendencies. It involves “local communities” (at what level?) going cap-in-hand to His Majesty’s Government in order to request more powers. While the details are fuzzy, with Labour promising to reveal more as part of its next general election manifesto, Labour’s history in this area suggests that the powers will be granted or withheld based on how well they align with the Westminster government’s priorities.
It’s possible that Wessex’s councils could unite to demand that powers be devolved to a regional level. Again, we would need to see the details of the Bill, but we would be extremely surprised if it was worded to allow such demands.
As ever, it is the centre telling us what we might be allowed, not us taking what is rightfully ours to decide.
No London-based party has a good record of devolving power as a matter of principle.
The former Tory-LibDem coalition came into office promising a new era of ‘localism’ – there was even a so-called Localism Act in 2011 – but ‘localism’ was soon reframed as ‘guided localism’. The poor yokels couldn’t possibly know what was best for them. One of the Act’s achievements – the creation of Neighbourhood Plans – was hailed as a way for communities to get the development they wanted and to stop the development they didn’t. Yet, time after time, Neighbourhood Plans have been overturned for not meeting imposed targets.
“All that will change under Labour”. Really? Tony Blair’s first term saw power devolved but only because nationalist pressure made this inevitable and because the resulting parliament and assemblies were forecast to become Labour bastions, the party’s redoubts when out of office at Westminster. That plan only worked in part. In English local government, opposite rules applied. All councils but the smallest were forced to adopt the new Caesarism, moving to an elected mayor or the leader + cabinet model. “No change,” said Local Government Minister Hilary Armstrong, “is not an option.” Planning became heavily micro-managed, with the power to sign-off local plans removed from councils to Whitehall inspectors.
During the early Blair years, councils were swamped with guidance and decrees from a Whitehall machine that believed them unable – after 18 years of Tory government – to work stuff out for themselves. The same can be expected under Starmer. Given the state of public finances, a cynic may reasonably suppose that what is to be devolved will be largely the power to make cuts and take the flak for them.
Then there are the strings. There are always strings. In recent years, there has been much haggling over the devolution of weak powers and pitiful funding, with the stumbling block in many cases being Whitehall’s insistence on elected mayors. Plans for a combined authority for East Anglia – which could have been a model for Wessex – floundered in 2016 because rural areas wanted no part in a solution designed for big cities.
Sunak or Starmer? Tweedledum or Tweedledee. Even the Greens and the LibDems are capable of being fair-weather decentralists only. WR exists as a distinctly regionalist party for a reason. All the London-based parties will talk for England on decentralisation. None will ever mean it. We stand against all the London parties because we simply don’t trust them to value Wessex’s priorities, or to see England’s regions as anything other than vassal states of London. Only a federal structure, whether English, British or European, can guarantee real control for Wessex.