Levelling, locality, labyrinth

The showpiece of the Queen’s Speech is the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. It is just the sort of measure which should have been taken many years ago, at least in Part 1. The rest of it has the appearance of a jumbled-together bag of ideas, which perhaps had been sitting in a back draw waiting for a Bill to jemmy them into, giving the look of sections far too hastily put together. It is really four or five Bills stuck together in a vaguely coherent manner to put it generously.

That is not to say that the individual ideas are poor, but they are hurriedly put together, when they deserved better, individual consideration.

Most of the Bill is to be welcomed. The Part I general duty on government to address regional disparities has been talked about by every shade of government for as long as I can recall, but never set out in quite this way. I could say that this duty is a Hobbesian necessity, after all:

The safety of the People, requireth further, from him, or them that have the Soveraign Power, that Justice be equally administred to all degrees of People; that is, that as well the rich, and mighty, as poor and obscure persons, may be righted of the injuries done them; so as the great, may have no greater hope of impunity, when they doe violence, dishonour, or any Injury to the meaner sort, than when one of these, does the like to one of them: For in this consisteth Equity; to which, as being a Precept of the Law of Nature, a Soveraign is as much subject, as any of the meanest of his People.

No one region has any more call upon the benefits of government than any other, which would constitute as Hobbes might put it, πλεονεξία, and for the state to grant it would be προσωποληψία.

There should be no need to spell such a duty out, because the government should always act in that way, but forcing the civil service to produce plans may actually change something. This essentially leads on from the “union agenda” intended to end accidental disadvantages which businesses in Scotland and Ulster suffer because of thoughtlessness in the way that regulations are drawn up.

Part 2 is a mess though. This one could be excised from the bill without harming the rest. It would be given better thought in a bill on its own. In this position it jumps into an already ramshackle system and makes it even more incoherent. Part 2 will create yet another new form for local authority, the ‘combined county authority’: why they call it that when the area can bear no relation to any county is perhaps best answered by assuming it was given little analytical thought.  These new bodies will be appointed by existing councils, plus additional members chosen by the councillor-members, or by bodies they nominate to nominate members, and to give them a purpose, powers will be stripped from local councils and granted by the minister, individually.

This blog has argued before – see “Now for LGAxit” – that the systems of local government are so complicated and so far removed from the assumptions underlying the Local Government Act 1972 that the Act should be wholly repealed, immediately, and replaced by one which reflects reality. Changes over the last decades have accelerated, each one making an exception to the requirements of the 1972 Act – so now it is a chaos of clashing and contradicting provisions, and when we have the new Part 2 (which only marginally coherent itself) then it will be intolerable. When the exceptions from the rule are more common than the original rule, as we have today, then something is wrong with how things are being done – when the assumption is that the original rule  will not apply then it is no more than a legal fiction, and you need to start again.

Mr Gove should not be tinkering at this stage: he should be repealing the old Act and getting a new one.  The new Bill just emphasises it all the more.

Furthermore, the terminology gets in the way of the intention. by suggesting that the new combined areas are in some way “counties” is to bring resistance to them. There is no way that a collection of governmental areas enrolled for mere convenience can be the equal of Yorkshire or Cornwall or Surrey or any of the famous counties of the realm. By choosing that one name, “county”, it suggests to local folk that own own, ancient places are being taken away and replaced by an ill-shapen imposition, and the resultant resistance will hold the plan up.  It can be saved by changing that one word to another, say “combined strategic areas”, as that seems to be what they are, or just “combined government areas”. The Ministry do not know how to make it easier for themselves.

There is a great deal to be said for the Bill, and the many elements  have not even touched upon, but the wise heads need to change Part 2’s self-defeating terminology, or remove it to work on later in the context of ‘LGAxit’ and a rationalisation of local government systems.

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short