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Election devolution debate fired-up by fringe parties’ referendum promises

Election devolution debate fired-up by fringe parties’ referendum promises

🕔20.Apr 2015

One curious aspect of this election is that all of the political parties involved are promising devolution from Westminster to cities and regions on a hitherto unprecedented scale. But it’s what might be termed the fringe parties that have the most radical ideas, writes Paul Dale.

Are you furious about the local council giving permission for a huge housing development over the road? There’s one political party promising to directly empower citizens to do something about unpopular local authority decisions.

UKIP says it will give local people the final say on major planning decisions, such as out-of-town large-scale supermarket developments, wind turbines, incinerators, solar farms and major housing developments, through the use of binding local referenda.

It’s not made clear in the party’s manifesto quite how the results of referendums will take precedence over government-approved development plans or how any housing development would ever be built if local people were given a veto, but never mind.

Also on UKIP’s agenda is a pledge to oppose the cabinet’ system of governance in town halls, “which puts too much power in the hands of too few people” and advocate a committee system which brings more openness, transparency and cross-party collaborative working.

And the party would reinstate weekly bin collections where local communities want this.

As for the local government gravy train, or what’s left of it, the buffers are fast approaching under UKIP with a promise to “provide greater value for money by limiting councillors’ allowances; golden handshakes; excessive salaries for council employees; council advertising; and abolishing non-essential jobs and red tape”.

UKIP would also introduce a biennial national referendum to decide the issues of greatest importance to the British public, with the outcome included in the Queen’s Speech.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the political spectrum, the Greens are also keen on referendums. They are promising a referendum on local government decisions if called for by 20 per cent of the local electorate. The party also proposes to increase local government spending by £10 billion.

Under the Greens, councils would be given the ability to introduce new local levies, fines and charges which they would be able to keep part or all of the revenue collected. Central government funding would be made available to pay for all statutory local services, local government would be allowed to set their own business rates to pay for discretionary activities.

Control of schools and education would be brought back directly under local council control.

Labour and the Conservatives have been battling it out on the devolution front since the 2010 General Election, and it’s noticeable that promises for decentralisation of power in England have been ramped up since the Scottish independence referendum last year.

Labour says it will devolve powers to city and county regions to encourage locally led economic growth and legislate for an English Devolution Act, devolving £30 billion back to city and county regions along with new powers over “economic development, skills, employment, housing, and business support and local transport authorities”.

City and county regions qualifying for devolved powers will not be forced to have elected mayors under Labour’s plans. The mayoral system will only be adopted where local demand for such a system can be demonstrated.

The party promises a fairer funding mechanism for local authorities and will establish an English Regional Cabinet Committee and local Public Accounts Committee to work closely with local authorities as well as scrutinising the use of public funds.

The Smith Agreement on further devolved powers for Scotland over welfare, jobs and tax would be delivered in full and the Barnett formula guaranteeing public spending would be maintained.

Labour will put Welsh devolution on the same statutory basis as Scottish devolution, with a clear principle that powers are devolved unless specifically reserved, and that a Welsh legislature is a permanent feature of constitutional arrangements.

A constitutional convention would be established to examine reforms to the governance of the UK as well as the role of English MPs.

The House of Lords would be replaced with an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions.

The Conservatives are promising to roll out their Northern Powerhouse vision across the rest of the country by devolving powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors.

In their manifesto the Tories say they will “revise parliamentary procedure to ensure matters effecting only England or England and Wales have the support of English and Welsh MPs, including on issues such as Income Tax”.

Like Labour, the Conservatives are promising to deliver the Smith Agreement in full and retain the Barnett Formula.

The Conservatives will deliver the recommendations made in the second Silk Report and devolve control of the Welsh Assembly itself to Wales – voting age, elections, electoral system and Assembly name.

The Liberal Democrats are promising to reduce the powers of ministers to interfere in democratically elected local government and will deliver greater devolution of financial responsibility to English Local Authorities, and any new devolved bodies in England, building on the work of the Independent Commission on Local Government Finance.

However, the manifesto warns: “Any changes must balance the objectives of more local autonomy and fair equalisation between communities. In some areas of England there is an even greater appetite for powers, but not every part of the country wants to move at the same speed and there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.

“We will therefore introduce Devolution on Demand, enabling even greater devolution of powers from Westminster to Councils or groups of Councils working together – for example to a Cornish Assembly.”

The Liberal Democrats say they will build on the Regional Growth Fund and continue it throughout the next Parliament.

The party is promising to devolve more economic decision-making to local areas, building on the success of City Deals and Growth Deals, prioritising the transfer of transport, housing and infrastructure funding, skills training and back-to work support.

The party will deliver Home Rule for Scotland by implementing the Smith Commission proposals in full in the first session of the next Parliament.

The Liberal Democrats will implement the remaining Silk Commission proposals on financial powers for Wales by transferring powers from the UK Parliament to the National Assembly over S4C, sewerage, transport, teachers’ pay, youth justice, policing and in the longer term other justice powers; devolve funding of Network Rail in relation to the Wales network; strengthen the capacity of the National Assembly to scrutinise legislation and hold the Welsh Government to account; and allow the Welsh Government to set its own bank holidays.

The party will provide for a Welsh Parliament, “preventing Westminster from being able to override Wales on devolved matters”, and devolving the power to amend electoral arrangements for the Assembly and local elections in Wales with a two thirds majority.

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