On Monday Parliament held a debate on devolution in England. Many MPs just wanted to talk about devolving more powers to Councils. I made the point that before you can fairly devolve power within England you first should devolve power to England. The Departments of Health, Local Government and Transport are largely or wholly English departments. Parliament should reflect that in its voting and debates. Our English Ministers in these departments should recommend to Parliament what parts of their powers would best be devolved to Councils.
Giving more powers of decision to Councils may or may not be a good thing. It depends on what the power does, and it depends on the quality of leadership and management of the Council you are giving it to. Some people both dislike centralisation, and they dislike a “postcode lottery”. In each case you have to chose. If you like more decentralisation, you must like postcode lotteries. The whole point of more devolution is to get different answers and different spending priorities in different places. If they all wish to end up doing the same it would be cheaper and easier to have centralised control and management.
I gave a couple of examples from transport policy in my area where I would accept different answers on devolution of power. Wokingham Borough has devolved responsibility for the A329M. We would like to continue it over the river into Oxfordshire to make it an even more useful road. Oxfordshire refuses. Were it a national rather than a local road the central government could make a decision without having problems over powers.
Wokingham does not have powers over the budget of Network Rail. Network Rail is owned by taxpayers and spends large sums of tax revenue. It controls important pieces of land, and its rail tracks create substantial road congestion owing to the difficulty of crossing the railway. It would be good to delegate some of Network Rail’s budget to Wokingham to allow us to spend some of this money on improving the railway, the access to it and the crossings over it to help our general transport system. Network Rail has been persistently unhelpful in my experience.
No amount of transferring budgets and powers to Councils within England can make up for the lack of any devolution to England. When Scotland choses her own Income Tax rate, so should England. That is not a job for Councils, but for English MPs at Westminster.