Devolution and local government in the UK
On Friday 8th July former Head of the Home Civil Service Lord Kerslake met with historians and policy makers from the public and third sectors at a History & Policy roundtable event at King’s College London. The theme was Devolution and Local Government in the UK, and was designed around the recently published report Devolution and the Union: a higher ambition, the outcome of the Inquiry into Better Devolution for the Whole UK chaired by Bob Kerslake.
This event was several months in the planning, but of course the result of the referendum of 23rd June put a different slant on proceedings; the group was in no doubt that they were discussing questions now of even more immediate and momentous constitutional significance. As Bob Kerslake made clear in his opening remarks, devolution is not a process to be seen in isolation, nor can it be solely about piecemeal “devolution deals” for cities and regions, often along the lines of the current London mayoralty. Instead, it links into a much wider set of questions about the British constitutional settlement and where power to make decisions in all areas of policy should reside – questions which have now been thrown into sharper relief by the referendum result. The “higher ambition” of the report’s title is to push past the piecemeal devolutionary arrangements made thus far and institute a debate at all levels to come up with a clear plan – potentially, from a constitutional historian’s perspective, a new constitutional settlement.
The group brought a number of areas of historical expertise to the discussion, which ranged over the high Victoria era of highly successful self-governing cities like Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow, local government reconstruction in post-war Germany by the British occupiers and the effects of 1970s political and economic reform on local communities and identities. Particular foci were the revealed tension between Parliamentary and popular sovereignty as revealed by the referendum result, and ways this might feed into the future devolution agenda, and the key question of finance and how much control areas with devolved governments should or could have over their own revenues. There are examples from 10th century charters (i.e. before the existence of Parliament itself in anything like its modern form) of what we would recognise as a city state with surrounding region which had their own self-governing arrangements and tax-raising powers, so this is a question with a very long history.