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Dash to deliver English devolution is ‘cynical’ ploy, claims town hall academic

Dash to deliver English devolution is ‘cynical’ ploy, claims town hall academic

🕔23.Sep 2014

A leading local government academic has urged the prime minister to set up a constitutional convention to consider how a post-Scottish referendum pledge to spread devolution to England might be achieved.

Iain Roxburgh, former chief executive at Coventry city council and now senior associate fellow at the Warwick Business School, raises the possibility of forming a UK parliament with English MPs joining regional assemblies that would have devolved powers over domestic matters.

Mr Roxburgh accused the main political parties of taking a “cynical and partisan” approach to Scotland’s decision to reject independence with a “hastily made vow” to deliver English devolution.

The Government wanted to outdo Ukip by introducing legislation for an English parliament before the 2015 General Election – a timetable that Mr Roxburgh fears is too short and fraught with difficulties.

There was a danger of being “bounced into simplistic action” with the result that any fundamental change to the way England is governed would be kicked into the long grass, he claimed.

The warning came as the Prime Minister told a private meeting of Conservative MPs that he was determined to press ahead with constitutional reform for England at the same time as devolving more powers to Scotland.

Mr Roxburgh believes the short term focus should be on negotiating further devolved powers with the Scottish government “without the politically divisive intrusion of the English question on these negotiations”.

However, he adds that the centralisation of England and dominance of Westminster must be addressed through a wide-ranging debate about devolution.

Mr Roxburgh said: “We need a widely drawn constitutional convention, involving civil society on a broad basis. It must not be top down, Westminster driven or London-based think-tank driven.

“The North, Midlands, South-west and other regions have different perspectives on devolution within England – and possibly different social, economic and political priorities. To different degrees they all resent the dominance of London – as the Scots clearly do.

“There is no quick fix. A constitutional convention must engage, stimulate debate, if possible on the scale of the engagement on Scotland. When the options for future constitutional arrangements for England are clear, there should be a referendum as in Scotland.”

He lists several options including a UK parliament and a separate English parliament equivalent to the Scottish parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. MPs from across Britain would sit in the UK parliament with only English MPs voting on English matters.

Posing the question would the public stand for another layer of government, Mr Roxburgh adds: “More powers and freedoms, including financial freedoms, for cities, combined authorities and counties to act in the interests of their residents are needed.

“But greater devolution to local authorities is not a solution to the English question on its own. It will not address one of the key lessons of the Scottish referendum campaign – that there is deep antagonism towards the centralised state not just in Scotland, but also in the regions of England, particularly the North. To address this, central government, both Whitehall and Westminster, must change fundamentally by decentralising itself.”

If a UK parliament was to be formed, English MPs could join regional assemblies to which would be devolved powers over domestic policy. The civil service would also be decentralised to support the regional assemblies.

Mr Roxburgh concludes: “The principle of subsidiarity should apply throughout. This option, which addresses the London-centric issue, does not add an additional layer of government, but separates out the current obscure multi-layered Westminster/Whitehall concentration of power and can be implemented, minimising extra cost. It also relocates substantial government spending on administration out of London to the regions.

“What we need now is a forum where such ideas and options for our constitutional future can be developed and debated. A constitutional convention and a process leading to decisions and real change are now needed.

“The opportunity presented by the trauma of the Scottish referendum should not be missed, but we should not be bounced into simplistic action that serve partisan interests and kick fundamental change in the way England is governed into the long grass.”

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