Much of the debate over devolution is currently being argued out in terms of identity versus practicality. On one side, the government and a small army of policy wonks argue that devolution within England has to be centred around economic growth, and so the structures of devolution must follow economic links.
On the other side, an army of regionalists, Yorkists, Lancastrians and others argue that devolution within England needs to follow the precedent of Wales and Scotland, and reflect cultural links first and foremost.
This is not a new argument, but one that has formed the backdrop of every attempt to reform local government in England over the last 50 years. From the Redcliffe-Maud Report in the 1960s through to Osborne's powerhouses and engine rooms the pattern has been similar: the government proposes changes to local government that involve adjusting boundaries to reflect current economic patterns; people on the ground object to some or all of those changes; and a final proposal eventually emerges that neither side really wants but can grudgingly accept.
This problem arises because both sides of the practicality versus identity debate have strong cases through looking at different sets of existing facts. The economic case points out that the way regional and local economies work rarely pays much heed to existing political and cultural boundaries – so if you're creating structures to enhance those existing economies you need to take account of that. The identity case argues that the cultural and political links that have developed outside of the economic sphere, and for far longer, must be recognised too.
Added to that clash are two other problems. First, local governance in much of England is a mess thanks to repeated waves of reorganisation that have left us with a confusing patchwork of organisations, bureaucracies and responsibilities.
For instance, where I live the borough council has some responsibilities, while the county council has others. Meanwhile, the county-wide police and fire Service have different boundaries to the county council, and the ambulance service operates across several counties in the region. That, of course, doesn’t match up with any of the boundaries used by the rest of the NHS in this area, though it does coincide with some regional functions remaining from the Labour Government. None of these, however, share boundaries with the Local Enterprise Partnership, and devolution is being proposed on a different set of boundaries to the LEP.
Add in to this the confusion caused by overlapping bureaucracies, and you can see how the second problem would be a lack of accountability.
We already have a situation where there are a confusing mix of institutions, some with borders based on identity, and some with borders based on practicality. This makes trying to hold any of them accountable on behalf of the people they're meant to be serving incredibly difficult – and the government's current devolution proposals are in the same vein.
This is why accountability needs to be an important part of any devolution proposal. It is possible to create new institutions that work over historic cultural boundaries – but the people have to be part of the process and the drawing of boundaries has to reflect cultural links as well as economic ones. The technocratic practicality argument of “this is what is best for you” has to yield to some local realities; but the identity counter-argument also has to accept that identities can change over time, and people can have multiple ones.
Expecting cultural, economic and governmental boundaries to match perfectly is foolish – and any devolution solution is always going to anger somebody. Demanding that identity or practicality alone should be the sole consideration is going to lead to problems, and any solution that's going to be successful in the long-term needs to balance the two through ensuring it's accountable.
Accountability isn't just about the practical structures of the system: it’s also about recognising and creating shared expectations and culture amongst the people that system is representing and serving. That may be the common ground that enough of the two sides can come together on to create something that pleases enough – if not all – of them.
Nick Barlow blogs at What You Can Get Away With.
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