Policy Press author Robin Hambleton, whose book Leading the Inclusive City: Place-based innovation for a bounded planet publishes next month, argues that it is time to sweep away the obsessive centralisation that is holding Britain back
The turnout, at 84.6%, was a massive improvement on the 65.1% who voted in the last UK General Election back in May 2010. Indeed, the citizens of Scotland have forced a re-write of the record books. They delivered the highest turnout in any election held in the UK since 1918, which was the first year all adults enjoyed the right to vote.
The first, and most important, lesson to draw from the lively political debates in Scotland is that place-based power matters. The referendum shows that, when citizens are granted significant decision-making authority, power to take decisions that really matter, they are more than ready to step up to the plate.
The events of last month provide a refreshing contrast to the long-established pattern of declining voter engagement in national and local government elections across the UK.
Westminster and Whitehall must shoulder much of the blame for the deterioration in the civic culture of Britain during the last thirty years. This is because successive governments have pursued a policy of, what I have called elsewhere, ‘centralisation on steroids’.
Over the years the ‘we know best’ London-centric political class, aided and abetted by our over-centralised media, have lost touch with large sections of the electorate.
The second major lesson from the Scottish Referendum is that the days of obsessive centralisation of decision-making in Whitehall should now be numbered. It is clear that avenues for introducing a dramatic decentralisation of power have now opened up within England.
The opportunity must not be missed
But there is a risk that the chance to give a major boost to local democracy will be missed. Discussion of the intricacies of voting arrangements in Westminster – the so-called ‘English Votes for English Laws’ debate – is in danger of distracting us from the larger prize.
Last month Scotland came close to breaking away from the UK. The passion of the referendum campaign demonstrated truly massive frustration with the excessive centralisation of power within the British state.
Believing that adjusting voting rights in the Houses of Parliament represents an adequate response to the public clamour for the real influence in decision-making is to demonstrate a startling lack of understanding of what is called for.
What is to be done?
First, it is vital that politicians in Westminster avoid the temptation to try to execute a ‘quick fix’. Rather, they should seize the opportunity for a radical overhaul of the British constitution. This requires, almost certainly, the creation of a constitutional convention – one that takes account of the voices of civil society, local government and the regions, as well as the political parties.
On 19 September the Prime Minister made a speech in Downing Street in which he proposed that the restructuring of power in England should take place ‘in tandem with and at the same pace as the settlement for Scotland’. This is a wholly misguided approach.
The starting point should be to consider how to revitalise local democracy and local politics across the entire country. There is, to be sure, little public craving for the creation of another tier of government within England.
So, instead of wasting money on trying to reintroduce regional government, it makes far more sense to drive power down to the local authority level and, for some powers, to the level of the city region or county region. We already have a pretty good system of local government, one that can be up-dated, strengthened and given serious fiscal power.
It is worth recalling that, as local government has had its powers reduced, voter turnout in local elections has declined to an unacceptably low level. In recent years, with an average voter turnout hovering at around the 31% mark, British local democracy is sick. It has now established itself firmly at the bottom of the European voter turnout league tables.
Local voting rates in other countries are far higher with, for example, Germany at 70%, Denmark 72% and Sweden 79%. In these countries local governments are far more powerful than in the UK.
The challenge, then, is to reverse the process of centralisation and bring about a radical rebalancing of power within England.
Learning from abroad
The evidence from my recent research on place-based leadership in other countries shows that really powerful elected local authorities can make a major difference to the local quality of life. Moreover when the power of place is given a boost, and this is hardly surprising, public participation in civic affairs also rises.
Strong local authorities are now to be found in all continents taking bold steps to advance social justice, promote care for the environment and tackle climate change. From Curitiba to Melbourne, and from Copenhagen to Portland, we can see that radical urban innovation flourishes when power is decentralised.
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