The House of Lords Constitution Committee has published a report on Devolution in the UK. It’s primarily focused on the relations between the four nations; that means that, despite taking a wide range of evidence, it misses the point almost completely. It doesn’t understand the most fundamental problem with the whole idea of devolution: that power in the UK is overwhelmingly centralised. Local government in the UK used to be responsible for hospitals, social assistance, public housing, gas, electricity, water, police, fire, public health, schooling and transport. Local authorities could develop enterprise, issue bonds to borrow money, and raise money for specific projects. All of those powers have been taken away. The promise of the ‘Northern powerhouse’ is a pale shadow of what local government used to be.
During the Scottish referendum campaign, I wrote about The failure of the UK.
The most obvious problem is remoteness – the problem of London-centred government. That was a problem in the 1920s and 30s, and the centralisation of the UK since World War II has made it progressively worse. The process began with the centralised control of services and resources that were necessary in wartime; after the war, while central government gradually (and reluctantly) relinquished control of industry and markets, it retained control of resources and services that were formerly part of local government. … In the process, the regions – all the regions – have been left behind. It’s not just the arrogation of control to the centre over public services; it’s been the sustained campaign to deny any part of the regions the power to borrow, to build, to take action on behalf of their population.
The process of ‘devolution’ is about delegating scraps of authority, rather than allowing regional and local authorities to act. Federalism is not about the grant of authority: power in a federal government is reserved to smaller units. There is no understanding in this report of that principle or what it implies.