The Northern Powerhouse and local devolution do not go far enough in empowering local communities. We need proper bottom-up devolution, argues Green Party leader Natalie Bennett in the Cresc Annual Lecture.
“We believe that the basic principle of Government should be … that power flows upwards from the people, and from their most local levels of Government to the higher levels.”
That is one of the Green Party’s Policies for a Sustainable Society (PSS) – our long-term vision established over the 40 years of our existence. Our policy document adds: “nothing should be done centrally if it can be done equally well, or better, locally”.
That doesn’t mean every decision is made by parish councils or their equivalent. Rather, it means making decisions at the appropriate level.
It means national governments – and international institutions – need to have the power and resources to stand up to the might of multinational companies in a way that small local institutions are unlikely to be able to do.
And decisions made locally can still be bad decisions. Even where it has the trappings of democracy, a local institution can be just as captive to special interests, just as influenced by bad information, just as slanted by a lack of resources for some and an excess of resources for other, just as subject to unquestioned group-think as any at the national or international level.
A regional governing body – such as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, which consists of single representatives from mostly ‘one-party state’, Cabinet-run institutions, and one woman and ten men – could not reasonably be described as democratic at all.
So what devolution, as a single step, can’t do, is solve our massive democratic deficit in Britain. But one thing that the very existence of the talk of devolution can do is start the process of asking questions, of seeking new models, of developing new processes in politics.
The Green Party believes that the development of the structure, decisions about the size and scope of each level of devolution, should be made democratically, with the majority of citizens involved in, engaged in, the process.
To go back to the PSS, it says: “All the major political decisions which affect our lives should ideally be made with our active participation, which requires open and informed debate rather than simply voting without discussion.”
DevoManc has been the very opposite of that. As two authors summed it up: “‘Devo Manc’ is the result of confidential bargains between the Treasury and a small group of local deal-makers, mostly on the City Council”.
Greens have been calling for a referendum to be held on the government’s proposed devolutions. Sadly those calls have been turned down – as in Sheffield, where Labour and Lib Dem councillors rejected a call for a vote on the South Yorkshire devolution deal.
But of course a single vote in a referendum, to approve or not a proposal laid down in tablets of stone from Westminster, while better than no democratic participation at all, is not anything like a democratic ideal – not ‘active participation’.
What a process of creating devolved political institutions should look like is a bottom-up, careful, considered process of deliberation by those affected… all those affected.
Another key principle is diversity. It’s clear that successful, genuine, democratic devolution would not produce a set of identikit institutions around the country, acting in copycat ways.
Successful devolution would, by its very nature, be multi-layered, diverse, sometimes idiosyncratic – and we should acknowledge not always 100% successful.
Rather like a natural ecosystem, different bio-regions, different cultural regions, different economic and environmental situations, would produce different kinds of devolved structures, structures growing organically – just as in the Somerset town of Frome where a local rebellion against politics-as-usual has produced the ‘flatpack democracy’ of the independent town council, unlike any other in the land.
A rural region heavily dependent on agricultural products might rightly want to give farmers a special role and place in its democratic structure.
An economically struggling de-industrialised city with high rates of deprivation would need extra support from the centre not just for its economy, but to keep its democratic structures flourishing.
A relatively isolated market town with a different politics to its rural hinterland might see its council taking on far more responsibilities and roles than a similar-sized town in a more politically cohesive setting.
Just as environmental economists talk about bio-regions, any successful process of devolution would, I’d suggest, need to identify, develop, nurture what I’m going to call devo-regions – the interlocked, layered levels of devolved democracy that would be specific to place and time.
There’s a clear danger – indeed likelihood with the current arrangements of DevoManc — that centralised, ill-informed, ill-directed decision-making from London for the greater Manchester region will be replaced by centralised, ill-informed, ill-directed decision-making from central Manchester out to the further, and poorest, reaches of its region. Manchester City could dictate to Trafford, Bury, Stockport, Rochdale, Oldham, Salford, Bolton, Tameside and Wigan, just as Westminster now relates to it.
Resilient, stable local economies, built around small business and co-operatives, rich ecosystems of mutually supportive businesses, are a desirable outcome from devolution.
A powerful devolved authority could through planning policies insist that rather than dormitory suburbs, complete communities with homes, jobs, education and leisure facilities were built to build lives not of endless car commuting but short walking and cycling journeys.
Which brings me to the environmental possibilities of devolution. It’s worth acknowledging that there are many environmental issues, from climate change to air pollution, plastic contamination to resource depletion, that operate on a global scale. Devolved authorities can play their part in tackling these, but only through coordinated regional or global action.
But protecting our environment, our local green spaces, our micro-ecologies, our farmland, is very much local. And local decision-making is most likely to be informed by real, deep knowledge of the natural environment.
There are many challenges, but what’s clear is that at so many levels, local to United Kingdom, our democracy isn’t working.
Genuinely democratic devolution is an essential part of the answer, although not a complete one.
- The Cresc Annual Lecture took place at the Manchester Conference Centre on 12 November, 2015, as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science.