Devo-max for England?

If you live in England, Wales or Northern Ireland you might well think the Scottish independence debate isn’t really about you. But of course that is nonsense – its outcome could have huge implications for everyone in the UK.

But it isn’t just the outcome that matters: it may not be too apparent from the media focus on the hotly disputed issues such as the currency and Scotland in the EU, and of course the personalities and rows, but the debate has opened up a whole tranche of complex issues around the constitutional future of the UK and the nature of devolution. Regardless of the result these debates are having an impact that won’t just be dropped on the 19th of September. And they could be very significant for English local government.

In Scotland, campaign groups are using the opportunity to raise their own issues. Scottish local government is pressing for more powers and stronger devolution. COSLA set up a Commission on Local Democracy to address the centralisation of power in Scotland. The Scottish government is committed to a constitutional convention and a written constitution if Scotland votes yes, part of which will set out the status and rights of local government. If there is a no vote, Scottish local government will demand to be part of the greater devolution promised by the three main Westminster parties.

All of this has highlighted ‘the English Question’. If there is a no vote and Scotland gets the ‘devo-max’ promised, then surely the English cities and regions will be asking what is in it for them. The debate itself and the new powers promised to Wales in the Wales Bill provide the context for renewed questioning about the nature of the centralised state in England. And if Scotland votes yes, who knows what the fall out will be for the constitutional, financial and political future of England, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Local government here could be pressing on an open door perhaps, at least as far as fiscal devolution and growth promotion? The coalition and Labour have all been talking localism and the role of cities and regions in promoting growth. We already have City Deals and Community Budgets and cities working together to make the case for regional investment outside London: five northern cities – Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne and Sheffield – published One North (pdf), a report calling for investment of £15 billion in the region over the next five years, which George Osborne has supported, and Ed Miliband has said £30 billion would be devolved to the English regions.There is also the proposal for the London Growth Deal and a growing number of reports from think tanks and commissions supporting devolved powers and finance (see LGiU briefing Cities economic growth and devolution update available for LGiU members only).

But how far does all this go? The CLG select committee thinks not far enough. In its report Devolution in England: the case for local government, the committee noted:

‘Scotland and Wales are gaining much greater control over taxation and borrowing, including responsibility for business rates, stamp duty and partial control over income tax. And all political parties recognise that the existing proposals will go even further in Scotland under so-called “devo max”. A similar case can be made for devolving many of these powers to areas in England—some of whose GVA [Gross Value Added] is greater than that generated in Scotland or Wales’.

The report highlights the politics of transfer – it isn’t just about the technicalities:

‘The transfer of enhanced tax and borrowing powers from central to local government may take time and require complex negotiations and, although our report addresses the technical issues, it is fundamentally about the transfer of power to local authorities and local communities. Fiscal devolution is the logical next step on the path to genuine localism. We think a start should be made’.

Labour’s Clive Betts, the committee chairman, said: “The public might well ask ‘when Scotland and Wales are being promised ever greater fiscal devolution, why not England?’ Devolving these powers is the next step on the path to genuine localism.”

The Scottish independence debate has created the space for questions around the nature of devolution, the role of regions and regional identity and the role of cities and regions in a more devolved UK – regardless of the result.

As the leader of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese puts it – the genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

This blog is based on the comment piece in August’s On Your Radar.