Thursday, 12 February 2015

Devol u-turn? (Part 1)

I have long been a supporter of regional devolution, but recently, particularly in light of the problems resulting from the government's austerity policies, I have been tempted to wonder whether regional devolution might perhaps turn out to be not such a great thing for the low paid, for vulnerable members of society or for public services. The reason for my concerns is related to the new powers that the government has offered to grant to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament is to be given new tax raising powers, including the power to set income tax levels. If regional devolution in England is to be fair, and particularly if it is to address the real or perceived problems resulting from the 'West Lothian question', then similar powers would eventually need to be granted to the English regional authorities. But one possible concern is that this could result in a 'race to the bottom', as competition developed between regions to attract businesses and high wage earners. Businesses would be able to use the threat of relocation to force regional authorities to cut taxes to below optimum levels - and reduced taxes could mean that help for the low paid and funding for public services would suffer.
In short, I have been wondering if devolution isn't merely a case of offering people a bigger slice of a potentially much smaller pie. Wouldn't it be better to aim for unity and solidarity, rather than fragmentation, among those bodies that are charged with raising taxes and funding public goods?
Another concern is that, while I fully understand why the people of Scotland and Wales chose a greater level of self government rather than rule from London, as a council tenant in a low paid, public sector job, I'm not sure that I really want to find myself living in a self-governing, self-funding East of England region (I am assuming that the nine existing administrative regions of England would almost certainly be the structural basis for any level of regional devolution which takes place). Politically, this region is totally dominated by the Conservative Party, who currently hold 52 of the 59 seats represented in the Westminster parliament. As someone with centre-leftish political views, I can’t help the words ‘turkey’ and ‘Christmas’ popping into my head when I think about what regional devolution, which I support in principle, could mean for the region in which I live. My fear is that, under a Conservative dominated regional authority with powers similar to those of the Scottish government, policies such as increased private sector involvement in the NHS and the slashing of public sector budgets would proliferate and those who oppose them would have very little recourse at all. While I fully support the idea of regional devolution in principle it would seem that, for pragmatic reasons, regional devolution in my neck of the woods is not something I should be hoping for any time soon – any more than a Conservative supporter living in Scotland, whatever her views on Scotland’s relationship to the rest of the UK, would have been likely to welcome the prospect of an independent, SNP dominated Scotland.
These are some of the questions and doubts I've had lately about regional devolution. In part 2 of this post I will outline my conclusions about the issues I’ve raised.

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