Over the last three years, the disconnect between the government and the governed has been clearer than ever before. Levels of trust in mainstream politics are at an all-time low – a trend made worryingly clear by the recent EU parliamentary elections.
Indeed, one of the factors behind the vote to leave the EU was the disconnection many felt to those in power – whether they be in Westminster or Brussels. And a significant contributor to this disconnect can be found in the cultural and economic detachment of separate regions within Britain. Most notably the fact that compared with London, the other regions of the UK suffer from a lack of investment and economic prosperity.
Our country is one of the most centralised economies in Europe, generating only five per cent of government revenue from regional taxes. This is shockingly low compared with other well-governed countries such as Switzerland, where this figure approaches about a quarter.
Our current centralised, one-size-fits-all tax policy suggests that we should reject the differences between regions – it really is no wonder that people don’t feel represented.
A way in which we way can restore trust in politics is by giving more power back to the people. And while it’s clear that structural reform is needed to address these imbalances, recent projects – namely George Osborne’s “northern powerhouse” and the increasingly questionable HS2 – show that the answer doesn’t lie in government-funded vanity projects. We need reforms that will allow regions to work for themselves.
The alternative, therefore, is a form of localised government where people can set their own local priorities. By devolving more power to local administrations, which understand the demands of their region better than any centralised government and can adapt polices accordingly, voters will have a better chance at knowing who’s making decisions and why they’re doing it.
Because the best decisions are usually made by those closest to the people affected by those decisions. MPs, councillors, and local government will have a proper understanding about what their constituents really think about local development projects and public services – Westminster simply taking reference from polling data certainly won’t.
Regions can produce the things that they are most effective at producing. Cornwall, for example, can build on its mining heritage and provide the vital metals of the future such as lithium.
Localised policymaking can also reinvigorate competition and innovation, which can often be badly lacking in UK regions. Local governments, given the choice of lower taxes and increased investment or higher public spending, are more likely to opt for the former.
In doing so, they will make their region a more attractive destination for businesses and individuals to relocate. Seeing their neighbouring regions adopt these policies, other administrations are likely to follow suit to stay competitive – or if they don’t, they can be held to account at the ballot box.
Reforms introduced in recent years have seen the creation of many directly elected metropolitan mayors who are accountable to their local electorate and wield significant powers over important local policy areas, including education and transport. Offering non-metropolitan areas the option of a directly elected mayor who can take on more policymaking powers will go a long way in addressing the current imbalances and returning power to the local people.
It’s also important that local and regional organisations, including local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), business consortiums, and industry groups, can find meaningful ways to collaborate and work together.
The “Great South West initiative” is one such example of stakeholders coming together to ensure that the south-west has a strong voice to highlight investment opportunities and support economic growth and prosperity in the region. But for it to really work these bodies need to have real decision-making and spending powers.
The significance of central government should not be ignored. Its role as a national body is particularly important for areas of concern such as defence and foreign policy. That’s why it makes sense for governments to end their dirigisme towards localised regions and stop interfering in matters which they mostly don’t understand, because they will then be able to focus more effectively on shared national concerns.
So the time has now come to give local politics back to local people. Localised policymaking allows regions to set agendas for themselves and reflect their unique needs while increasing the electorate’s ability to hold policymakers to account.
When we leave the European Union, we must seize the opportunity to give a voice to those who feel as though they don’t have one in overarching, bureaucratic government institutions.