The Future of England: The Case for Municipal Devolution

Cameron Beavan-King and Chris Spencer make the case for municipal devolution and municipal socialism.

The political debate over how to devolve power in England as well as the broader conversation about how Labour engages with Englishness is contentious. Some have offered solutions to this debate through the creation of regional assemblies and the politically toxic break-up of England. Others have made the argument for an English Parliament, which wouldn’t fundamentally shift wealth and power across our country. We propose a municipal model, which is aligned with the traditions of the British left and English history, to ferment radical devolution which conforms to the actual identities of people across England.

The past decade has seen councils in English hollowed out, underfunded, and devolved the management of the grim realities of austerity. Our economy is desperately imbalanced, the Institute for Public Policy Research has found that the regional divides in productivity, disposable income, jobs, and skills are higher in the United Kingdom than any other comparable country. Communities have been left with boarded-up high streets and closed community facilities. We all know the anger and resentment this has generated across our country. It is no wonder why when communities are totally powerless and feel ignored by Westminster.

We see the solution as a radical redistribution of power to local government to give our cities and towns across England, the tools they need to prosper, provide fantastic local services, and expand opportunities to their citizens. As we will set out, from Chamberlain’s Birmingham to George Lansbury in Poplar, and Preston City Council today, a strong spirit of municipal socialism runs through our country and can show the way for us to create a fairer and more prosperous England from Dudley to Darlington and Leeds to Plymouth.

In the mid-1800s, Britain’s industrial cities went through similar periods of municipal intervention to improve their communities and the lives of their citizens. In Birmingham, the non-conformist liberal Joseph Chamberlain put the radical Civic Gospel into action. As Mayor, he led a municipal takeover of the gas works and the water supply to provide a better service for the people of Birmingham and to expand the city’s revenue streams. The profits from municipalised services allowed Chamberlain and his successors to invest in civic infrastructure, in schools, and in art galleries. An American observer would call Birmingham ‘the best-governed city in the world’.

This early municipal socialism greatly inspired the Webbs and others in our movement. In Poplar, George Lansbury led a radical programme of municipal social reform and implemented a minimum wage for council workers in 1919. The 1932 programme of the Sheffield Labour Party would declare their purpose to be ‘to use the great municipal machine for the improvement of the city and bring the greatest health, educational, and cultural benefits to the people’. Today, Labour Preston City Council is leading an ambitious programme of community-wealth building.

The foundation of radical municipal devolution would be instead of constructing hegemonic regions, we start from the bottom up. This is a task of mapping out the relationships people have at the most local level. Everywhere in England – whether village, suburb, or estate – has a concept of locality based on the where people go to conduct their everyday lives; where they go to the shops, work, and school. Anyone who has been involved in local politics knows that the issues that determine so much of people’s outlook on politics and society is what they see when they go to work, take their children to school, or visit the local shops. So, our politics should from start the fundamental basis of empowering the local institutions closest to them.

Many people will wonder how this is a viable model for devolution though, as town councils cannot coordinate infrastructure, health, and education on their own. However, towns and suburbs naturally form connections with others, spanning outwards; where powers at the most local of levels does not make sense, municipalities could construct their own metropolitan authorities, the powers of which could expand and contract according to what was necessary. These metropolitan areas would probably expand to take the form of ‘city-regions’, like those which are currently presided over by metro-mayors in some areas of England. These city-regions can just as much be formed in southern England, built around boroughs and cities such as Oxford, Milton Keynes, Stevenage, and Basingstoke; city-regions which could be used as highly effective counterbalances to the economic grip of London in the South.

Turning to the idea of the regional assemblies, the question is where they would serve and what connects those places. Yorkshire is probably the only part of England which has a defined enough regional identity to host a regional assembly. The rest of England technically has regions (we used them as our European Parliamentary constituencies prior to Brexit), but most of them are simply lines on a map pertaining to areas with no cultural or even economic relationship, with names such as ‘The East of England’ which are as monosyllabic as the regions themselves.

Even in places with some semblance of regional acknowledgement, such as the West Midlands, regional identity is not uniform; it’s strong in the core West Midlands County, but a regional model would throw that area under the same bureaucracy as Herefordshire, an entirely different landscape culturally speaking with limited economic connection to WMC. Would a Birmingham-based region deliver equally for its looser periphery, or would this model reinforce centralisation and lock more power up in faceless, monolithic bureaucracies? If we use Scotland as a model form the English regions would take, the reality suggests the latter; Scotland being one of the most centralised bureaucracies in Europe.

The regional model becomes even more complicated when attempting to configure a model for southern England. London has a significant popular identity and experience of its own institutions which is likely to engender legitimacy, but the issue of where London stops becomes a pressing matter once again. London identity seldom expands outside the M25, and Greater London on its own is more than sufficient to function as region, however, where does this leave the rest of the south-east?

Thinking about this from a perspective of infrastructure, areas such as Essex and Hertfordshire border each other, both are intimately connected to London, yet are not strongly or naturally linked to each other. Throwing Hertfordshire and Essex together with other Eastern counties without London would make no sense in terms of economics and infrastructure and would also completely lack legitimacy among the people who live in this fabricated region. From a perspective of infrastructure (something which the regions would inevitably oversee), it would make more sense to place the entire south-east portion of England into one London-based region. The question that arises from this, however, is whether a gargantuan regional entity inhabited by nearly 25 million people, covering everywhere from Peterborough to Brighton and Great Yarmouth to Oxford, would do anything apart from dilute the distinct local voices and interests in this area.

The alternative is our proposal for a radical programme of municipal devolution. Instead of carving out artificial regional units, we support empowering local government across England. However, this isn’t just about shifting bureaucracy; it is about reviving a new spirit of municipal socialism and civic renewal with Labour mayors, council leaders, and councillors leading the way. There does however need to be a conversation about national English institutions. While we disagree with an English Parliament as the solution, we believe that English leaders in local government and in Westminster could be brought together through a Council of England to represent shared English interests within the union.

R. H. Tawney once said that ‘When Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds are little republics which they should be, there is no reason to anticipate that they will tremble at a whisper from Whitehall’. A radical programme of municipal devolution would be a 1945-shift for the next Labour government with the empowerment of cities, towns, and communities across England to embed radical change locally and rebalance the political and economic structures of our country towards communities across England.

Cameron Beavan-King and Chris Spencer are the Co-Chairs of the Young Fabians Devolution and Local Government Policy Network.

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