How can we make regionalists and wonks agree about devolution? Talk about accountability

Simpler times: a detail of the administrative map of England as it stood in 1931. Image: XrysD/Wikimedia Commons.

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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There isn’t a war on the motorist. We should start one

These bloody people. Image: Getty.

When should you use the horn on a car? It’s not, and anyone who has been on a road in the UK in living memory will be surprised to hear this, when you are inconvenienced by traffic flow. Nor is it when you are annoyed that you have been very slightly inconvenienced by another driver refusing to break the law in a manner that is objectively dangerous, but which you perceive to be to your advantage.

According to the Highway Code:

“A horn should only be used when warning someone of any danger due to another vehicle or any other kind of danger.”

Let’s be frank: neither you nor I nor anyone we have ever met has ever heard a horn used in such a manner. Even those of us who live in or near places where horns perpetually ring out due to the entitled sociopathy of most drivers. Especially those of us who live in or near such places.

Several roads I frequently find myself pushing a pram up and down in north London are two way traffic, but allow parking on both sides. This being London that means that, in practice, they’re single track road which cars can enter from both ends.

And this being London that means, in practice, that on multiple occasions every day, men – it is literally always men – glower at each other from behind the steering wheels of needlessly big cars, banging their horns in fury that circumstances have, usually through the fault of neither of them, meant they are facing each other on a de facto single track road and now one of them is going to have to reverse for a metre or so.

This, of course, is an unacceptable surrender as far as the drivers’ ego is concerned, and a stalemate seemingly as protracted as the cold war and certainly nosier usually emerges. Occasionally someone will climb out of their beloved vehicle and shout and their opponent in person, which at least has the advantages of being quieter.

I mentioned all this to a friend recently, who suggested that maybe use of car horns should be formally restricted in certain circumstances.

Ha ha ha. Hah.

The Highway Code goes on to say -

“It is illegal to use a horn on a moving vehicle on a restricted road, a road that has street lights and a 30 mph limit, between the times of 11:30 p.m. and 07:00 a.m.”

Is there any UK legal provision more absolutely and comprehensively ignored by those to whom it applies? It might as well not be there. And you can bet that every single person who flouts it considers themselves law abiding. Rather than the perpetual criminal that they in point of fact are.


In the 25 years since I learned to drive I have used a car horn exactly no times, despite having lived in London for more than 20 of them. This is because I have never had occasion to use it appropriately. Neither has anyone else, of course, they’ve just used it inappropriately. Repeatedly.

So here’s my proposal for massively improving all UK  suburban and urban environments at a stroke: ban horns in all new cars and introduce massive, punitive, crippling, life-destroying fines for people caught using them on their old one.

There has never been a war on motorists, despite the persecution fantasies of the kind of middle aged man who thinks owning a book by Jeremy Clarkson is a substitute for a personality. There should be. Let’s start one. Now.

Phase 2 will be mandatory life sentences for people who don’t understand that a green traffic light doesn’t automatically mean you have right of way just because you’re in a car.

Do write in with your suggestions for Phase 3.