Monday, 31 March 2014

40 years of local government-the reform that failed

Forty years ago this week the Heath government inflicted a reform of local government upon us. To commemorate this anniversary BBC Sunday Politics NW did a piece including contributions from our MP John Pugh and me. Jim Hancock, the NW's premiere political commentator, has written arguing that there is still unfinished business for the NW following on from a previous posting calling for a more co-ordinated Regional approach which I covered in an earlier posting.

 Southport got a rotten deal out of local government reorganisation in the 1970's. In truth none of the options on offer back then were 'Southport friendly'.( Well, I say that but had Heath not rejected the 1969 Redcliff Maud proposals I would not have been writing this posting) The political architecture drawn up by Peter Walker for the North had no place for towns like ours.

The past forty years have done nothing to dull the discomfort. Thousands upon thousands of local residents have petitioned the powers that be for changes to the structure.

A quick glance at a map shows why- 95% of our land boundary is not with Merseyside. Since re-organisation we have had no significant investment in our transport, road or rail, to the north or east. Whilst a regular, four times an hour, electrified rail service goes to Liverpool the service to Manchester has greatly declined. We have diesel units, amongst the oldest rolling stock on the network, that reluctantly chug their way to Wigan. It is a near miracle the Northern Rail keep them in service.  It is simply not fit for purpose. The same is true of road links. The chance of a decent road link to the motorway network is declining and there is no sign of an Ormskirk by pass.

Our town's economy is centred on visitors, retail, tourist attractions, conferences and good food, for these to flourish good road and rail communications are essential. The links we need investing in are not in Merseyside. They lie within Lancashire and Southport is simply not a priority for our neighbours. The so called City region is no use.

We are competing with Liverpool and Manchester for retail and conference trade. Millions are being invested in upgrading their communications. Investment not seen since Victorian times is being made in the Manchester rail hub and the Liverpool Manchester line is being electrified. Greater Manchester is talking of electrifying the section of line from Wigan to Manchester leaving the portion from Wigan on to Southport to wither and eventually close? Southport needs a voice at the table which makes decisions about the transport infrastructure that impact on us.

We now have excellent conference facilities-recently further improved by the increase in bed spaces and an excellent 4* Hotel abutting the Conference facility . Our retailers have got their act together and along with other have successfully won the vote for a Business Improvement District.  They have some exciting and innovative ideas but with out improved communication links they have an uphill battle to attract people to the town. Reconnecting with our natural hinterland is essential and that means electrifying the rail route from Southport to Manchester, restoring the curves at Burscough opening up a line to Preston once again and connecting us to the motorway network.

What is to be done? John Pugh our MP has a Bill before Parliament at present that would allow local residents to trigger a boundary review. At present the process is controlled by London based bureaucrats who resist all calls for change.

There is a bigger problem.  It is not just that those who work in London are not interested in allowing sensible changes to boundaries in far away towns of which they know nothing and seemingly care less. The main problem is that they are promoting an idea -City Regions- which will make the situation worse. Jim Hancock puts it well :

It is high time the prevailing doctrine that cities are the only drivers of the northern economy was challenged. Without a strong regional policy, towns around our big cities are going to suffer. Leading academics of my acquaintance, who support the cities agenda, openly say that people in places like Burnley are going to have to travel to Manchester to get a job in the future.

What went wrong? In a word; Prescott. That is John Prescott, a man who history will judge harshly, not for his bad grammar but for his incompetence. Blair put him in charge of a massive department. Part of his brief was to bring in Regional government in the aftermath of the devolution to Scotland and Wales.He failed. Maybe Blair intended him to fail. The Whitehall mandarins cheered as no doubt did those who believe unitary government. The proposals that Prescott produced for the NE were insulting. He was offering nothing more than a parish council.

Ming Campbell was asked this weekend: What is the answer to the West Lothian question? Ming replied: Federalism.  He was right. Prescott failure to put forward a credible Regional option for England has undermined that objective. Of course the powers in London don't want powerful English Regions exercising the sort of powers that are on offer to Holyrood under 'Devo Max'. The civil servants would hate it. Instead we have this botched idea of City Regions- essentially City Councils with pretensions. Of course it flatters their egos, makes them feel important but essentially they have gone along with a divide and rule policy which Balkanises the north and does great economic damage to those who do not live and work in the core cities. The Labour party in these parts are broadly untouched by New Labour ideas and still dream of state control and democratic centralism and therefore no friends of decentralisation.

As Jim Hancock points out if the Cities are seen as the only drivers of economic growth in the north those of us who want to live and work in the spaces in between are ignored. I am a Liberal. I believe in the diffusion of power and wealth. Towns like Southport are being written out of the script if we allow this folly to go on. I pointed out how our key requirement for economic success is improved road and rail links to the North-towards Preston, and the East towards Manchester. Since local government re-organisation there had been very little investment  and the service has declined significantly damaging our economy. The key investment is not within our 'City Region' and they will never become someone elses priority.  The only decent links are through a narrow corridor to the south- within Merseyside.. We need those visitors from the Lancashire and Greater Manchester back, potentially they represent 70% of our visitors. The boundary is the impediment to that investment.

John Cruddas  the man in charge of Milliband's policy review speaking at the Progress meeting recently declared:  "The real divide within Labour is no longer between left and right, but between those that centralise power and those that devolve it."

This debate has been going on within Labour for generations and the centralists always win. David Marquand's excellent book records the battle in 1945 over the Health Service. Predictably in the 'nationalise it under central control' corner was Ernest Bevin.  His approach was summed up by David Marquand as:'quintessential democratic collectivist....whose policy was shaped by a technocratic centralism that would have delighted the Webbs.'  He asserted to the cabinet that there was 'an overwhelming case' for putting the voluntary hospital sector under public control and-most significantly- that Local Government wasn't up to it. Apparently L.G. had too small a units-where have we heard that before ?- even though we have giant units of local government compared to most of Europe.

There was a fierce battle in cabinet with Herbert Morrison championing the  resistance to nationalisation in the name of -'local democracy and civic engagement' and Bevan claiming 'rationality and uniformity',  whereas as Morrisson believed that local democracy should trump 'administrative convenience and technical efficiency. We know who won.

We cannot rely on Labour with its internal schism and tergiversation on this most crucial issue. Liberals are the champions of decentralisation, we believe that small can be beautiful and that civic involvement enhances democracy. The strengthening of powers to Wales and Scotland that will inevitably follow the referendum require us to spell out a federal alternative for England and for large swathes of the population City Regions are not the answer.

I wrote this posting (especially the final paragraph) before the city region exploded it petty squabbling and destructive division. It is as though the Labour bosses are seeking to prove they are incapable and exercising enhanced powers.
Writing in the Liverpool Echo Marc Waddington ( a lad from Burnely who therefore should take note of Jim Hancock's strictures quoted above) noted:

After the chaos of the Merseytravel debacle, when Labour in-fighting led to the coup of its chairman Cllr Mark Dowd and all the horror stories about profligacy with public money followed, a lot of people hoped it was moving into a steadier period.
It has done and has been run pretty well under the chairmanship of Cllr Liam Robinson, but there may be some fears within the corridors of Merseytravel that the fall out on the combined authority could send the transport authority off the rails.
After all, it is now answerable to the new body, and if we have two factions then we have problems. We don’t want progress slowing to a crawl because of personal disputes.

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