Scotland sees sense – now, will Cameron?

uniion jackAfter all the media hype, it was very comforting to wake this morning to find that we still have a United Kingdom and by a convincing margin of 54:46.  I spent a couple of days in the Scottish borders, visiting my English aunt who is 103 years old and still hale and hearty and who voted NO. Also my English cousins who have lived and worked and now retired in Scotland and who voted NO.  They will be celebrating today along with those who wanted to stay together.

Several things were particularly noticeable as we drove up from Oxfordshire to the Scottish Borders.  After you cross the border, the roads improve, the streets are cleaner and it is clear that the public sector is everywhere; in housing stock and in public buildings.  We stayed in Melrose, about the size of Bloxham but feeling more like a market town but without the ghastly urban housing estates Bloxham has suffered.  It seemed to be thriving and there was a rugby club, a tennis club and a number of other apparently well supported community buildings.  My aunt commended free prescriptions for all and my cousins lamented the fact that Scottish youngsters had a free university alongside youngsters from EU states but not potential English students who had to pay.  This felt like a country that expected but was willing to pay for a high level of public services.

It also felt like a divided country.  After crossing the border, there were plenty of large NO signs in the farmers’ fields and we saw few YES posters until we visited Galashiels where they predominated in the swathes of council housing.  Two days is no time to understand a nation but I sense a big political divide between those who expect high funded, high level public services that someone else will pay for and those who realise they are likely to be called on for that payment!  Which brings me to the central question of “what now”.

Despite a clear NO for independence, it is equally clear that the Scots are discontented and believe much of Salmond’s rhetoric about deprivation and unfairness and we need to put that right.  What we don’t need to do is for England to pay the price of this correction. We have already backed ourselves into a corner by pledging to keep the Barnett formula – a crass bit of political crisis mismanagement if ever there was one – which gives Scotland  £24 of public spending for every £20 England has.  No wonder they can afford free prescriptions, free university tuition, better roads and more public services!  Well, if Scotland wants them, Scotland must have them but Scotland must pay for them. So, by all means give them greater parliamentary powers, particularly to raise Scottish taxes, providing England does not pick up the bill for their Socialist tendencies.

By all means retain the Barnett formula but for heavens sake look at how it works and re-jig it to allocate public spending on a simple per-capita basis so that every £20 Scotland has to spend is matched by £20 for England.

St George flagThere is another consequence of the Independence referendum. It is the necessary consequence of greater parliamentary power for Scotland and is greater parliamentary power for England.  Why should Scottish MPs be able to vote on purely English matters when English MPs cannot vote on matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament?  It is time for complementarity with Scottish MPs debarred from voting on the English NHS or any other matter where Scotland has devolved powers and, as Scotland is given more, the argument for a separate English Parliament at Westminster, excluding Scottish MPs becomes overwhelming.

There is more.  Scotland is not the only part of the United Kingdom to feel discontent. We live with the most centralised government in the democratic world and, if Scotland deserves more devolved powers, so does local government in England.  Over the last fifty years – many of them under Conservative governments – local government has become more and more emasculated with the corset of tight central government control over finance and many policy areas.  If devolution is good for a part of the country it is good for all of it and this should involve enhanced powers and freedoms for local government.  It is time to take off the shackles, David and Eric, to trust local government and to allow it to prosper again and the communities it serves.  Remember what Jo Chamberlain did for Birmingham.  There is that capacity and talent in local government but you need to strike off the shackles that presently bind it.

There may be a price to pay by local government.  I last visited Scotland 3 years ago, meeting John Swinney among others and I was impressed when he explained that there are just 32 Scottish local authorities and they are unitary.  The government can meet the 32 leaders in a medium sized meeting room and have a coherent discussion. Compare this with the number and divergence of English local authorities and you start to see the problem.  In particular, the two tier structure in county areas is plain mad and bad.  No sane legislator would invent it with split, confusing and illogical responsibilities. While social care is a county responsibility; housing sits with district councils. While libraries are a county responsibility, recreation lies with the districts. Maddest of all, planning used to be split and still is but less logically than ever. Strategic planning used to be a county responsibility with the need to produce a county-wide structure plan while districts dealt with detailed planning policy. This changed when the Blair government introduced regional planning and abolished the Structure Plan. Regional planning has subsequently been abolished by the coalition while planning more generally has undergone further “reform”. The result is that there is no broad scale, high level strategic planning at a regional or sub-regional level and districts are generally too small to take a long and strategic view of a functional economic area. County councils remain the highway authorities and have a role but a diminishing one in education. In the latter, they are responsible for managing the education market to a certain extent and this includes managing future school needs in terms of growing or declining pupil numbers. All in all, there is only one word to describe our present two-tier system – shambolic.

Eric Pickles

Eric Pickles

imageSo Dave and Eric, you need to be brave and resolute.  Don’t let Salmond bully you and don’t forget England in dealing with Scotland’s problems.  England is seething with discontent as well and needs more devolution to reflect the different needs of different areas and to re-engage electors who have lost all confidence in the political system largely through the perception of remoteness and disinterest whether real or imagined.  You have a huge canvass on which to paint a better and more localised political landscape and not a lot of time in which to start to get it right.


About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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