The threat of Hexit: could the London Borough of Havering really be about to secede from the capital?

Here we go again. Image: Getty.

It’s easy, when talking about politics, to belittle your opponents: to treat those who disagree with you, not as smart, decent, honourable people who simply happen to hold different views, but as misguided, stupid or, worst of all, evil.

This problem, I suspect, has always been there. But now, in the age of social media and filter bubbles, we can see it happening in real time. Indeed, we can get pulled into it, finding ourselves moved to mock or abuse the other side by nothing more than the desire for the likes or retweets that signal the approval of the in group.

This is a terrible trend that is gradually rotting the body politic from the inside, and I wish I knew how to stop it. Sadly, I don’t. So:

Bloody hell, look at this bunch of fucking muppets. From the Evening Standard:

Havering Council is set to vote on a plan dubbed ‘Hexit’, under which it would seek to renegotiate its relationship with the London Mayor and City Hall.

But the proposal - tabled by Ukip councillor Lawrence Webb - has split opinion in the borough.

Mr Webb said the plan was about “taking control” of the area’s future, but critics argued it could lead to major changes in policing and other emergency services.

Havering, if you’ve never been there, is London’s easternmost borough: a chevron-shaped chunk of suburbia pointing out into Essex, the county from which it was carved and to which it still feels an emotional pull. Its largest town is Romford; it also contains Hornchurch, Upminster and not a great deal else.

It is also, it’s worth noting, London’s whitest borough. In 2013, the population of London was 42 per cent black or minority ethnic. In Havering, it was just 14, which actually makes it slightly whiter than England as a whole (15 per cent). This may go some way to explain the borough’s identity crisis, and the fact that, even after 52 years as part of the capital, many there don’t feel like Londoners.

Much of the city prides itself on its diversity and its openness to people of all races and identities. Havering, though, looks politically much more like the Essex commuter towns to its east. Nearly 70 per cent of its voters opted for Leave in last year’s referendum on Brexit. Of the borough’s 54 councillors, just two are from the Labour party. It’s dwarfed not only by the Tories (22) and UKIP (6), but by three different residents’ associations. The borders of Havering are just eight miles from Hackney. Culturally, though, they’re on different planets.

So. Leaving Greater London would be a sensible idea then, right?

Wrong. It would be a very, very silly one.

Lawrence Webb has form for this kind of embarrassing grandstanding. In January 2016, the UKIP councillor orchestrated another vote, in which Havering voted to leave the European Union. What the point of this was I’m not exactly clear, since London Boroughs are not really allowed to set their own foreign policy, but it clearly made the local UKIP lot feel big, which I guess was the important thing.


(When I wrote about this, incidentally, I was accused on Twitter of being a typical metro lib showing contempt for the natives. I pointed out that I grew up in Havering, that most of my family still live there, and that I in fact I am one of the natives. I also asked my accusers when they’d last visited a place they were so concerned to speak for. Eighteen months on, I am still awaiting their response.)

In fact, there are genuine parallels between Brexit and Hexit: both votes represent a clash between identity and practicality. Yes, in terms of how people perceive of themselves, there are many in the borough who think of it as Essex more than London. But when you’re thinking about boring practical things like transport, policing or emergency services – or, in the case of Brexit, like trade regulations or what to do with nuclear fuels – identity is not always a great guide to what you should do.

After all, the residents of Havering need to be able to commute to the City or Canary wharf. The local buses need to cross borough boundaries, into Barking or Redbridge. The borough is part of London’s housing market, too, so the idea of running an entirely independent planning policy strikes me as a nonsense: in physical terms, it’s part of the broader conurbation, and it makes sense to manage it as such.

What’s more, were the council to quit London and become a unitary authority, it would find itself responsible for a whole bunch of support services that are currently pooled across Greater London. This, one suspects, might be expensive. To be fair to the council leader, the Tory Roger Ramsey, he seems acutely aware of this:

...Ramsey slammed the idea, saying the potential move would be a “complex adjustment” for Havering residents that would affect major services.

He said: “We’re part of the Metropolitan Police, the London Fire Brigade, Transport for London, and that would be lost.”

In other words, feeling like you’re from Essex is all very well. But you still can’t eat sovereignty.

The vote on whether to renegotiate Havering’s relationship to the capital takes place on Wednesday 26 July. But the results won’t matter, I suspect. As a council vote, not a referendum, it will carry less force than the Brexit vote. More importantly, the council has no power to unilaterally quit Greater London. To quote a spokesman for the communities department:

“The boundaries in London are set by parliament – any changes would require further legislation.”

Somehow, I don’t imagine this being a priority. So my instinct is that Hexit is never going to happen.

Then again, I thought that about Brexit, too.

Bloody hell, though. Look at these muppets.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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