There has been considerable talk over the last year about devolution, particularly in the context of England and what it means for local government.
The United Kingdom is one of the world’s most centralised democracies. Even with an English Parliament—something which would probably lead to the breakup of the UK—England would still be one of the most centralised democracies.
Most countries have some regional tier of government, sitting between national government and local councils and over recent decades the UK has tried two models to bridge the gap. The first is regional parliaments/assemblies which Labour created for Scotland and Wales, and tried to introduce a dilute version in England before voters rejected it in the North West. The second is the mayoral/combined authority model, most notable in London and Manchester and which is the focus of the discussions currently taking place.
Devolving power to local government on issues where they are best placed to deliver makes a lot of sense, but we should be clear that this still leaves England too centralised and some form of regional governance will be necessary at some stage.
Crawley is currently part of negotiations for a devolution deal which would cover West Sussex, East Sussex and Surrey, with a rival deal for ‘Greater Brighton’ extending right up to our boundaries.
So far the devolution deals which have been agreed have been fairly poor, recovering some of the funding for infrastructure councils have lost over recent years and adding in some largely insignificant powers in return for accepting an elected mayor. Clearly we want better for our area, but given just how many councils are involved compared to the other deals there are major challenges.
To my mind any deal must benefit not only the ‘area’ but Crawley itself, with clear structures showing just how the town’s need would be met. Given that a mayor would constitute a new tier of governance I believe a local referendum on the mayoralty would also be a prerequisite for any new deal. Ultimately it’s up to the voters, not politicians, to decide how we are governed.