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ResPublica & the 2017 Election Devolution and the Regions

ResPublica & the 2017 Election  Devolution and the Regions

The election campaign has seen some commonly-aired criticisms of the UK’s subnational government, on unfair funding and out-of-date business taxes. Labour focuses on recreating the regional institutions abolished by the Tories, while the Tories look to build on their post-2010 reforms, especially in counties. At at an existential juncture for the UK, all parties acknowledge problems with the current structure of the Union – but arguably lack real answers.

Local finance and government

Reviews of the problematic local government business rates are promised in Labour and Tory manifestos; both to improve revaluations and of the tax as a whole. On funding allocation mechanisms, the Tories will address concerns about their ‘fairness’ while Labour will account for the challenges of large rural councils. Labour goes further, ‘considering’ a Land Value Tax. Yet missing from either is an explicit promise that councils will have the discretion to alter business rate multipliers, perhaps linked to devolution deals, or an indication of how business rates will be redistributed in the new system.

All parties recognise the prospect of further devolution deals. The Tories support further combining of authorities and a more formal devolution approach with clarity and a ‘common framework’. The Tories support new Metro-mayors in the cities but not in the counties, whereas Labour promise to be guided by popular opinion. The Tories will also change Metro-mayor elections to be via First Past the Post voting; changes to the voting system could advantage the Tories by splitting opposition party votes. Neither party mentions local government reform, although this will probably be necessary to simplify governance in order to receive devolved powers. Conservative language around ‘supporting authorities who wish to combine is likely deliberately ambiguous.

The union

Both main parties’ rhetoric is strongly pro-unionist. Labour support a Minister for England and nod to the potential for ‘a more federal country’, but their approach revives the former regions, with Government offices for the regions, regional development banks, and a ‘presumption’ EU powers will pass straight to nations or regions. On the other hand, the Tories will move civil servants and national institutions outside London, but their approach is based on economic areas, empowering Combined Authorities to produce their own industrial strategies, and making LEPs statutory.

However, neither party addresses how to strengthen pan-Union institutions; UK-wide statistics, for example, are sometimes not available in Northern Ireland and should be urgently improved.

Unlike the Tories, Labour also mention funding allocation reform with regard to the nations – they say that public expenditure allocation should ensure it “reflects the needs of different parts of our country and that no nation or region of the UK is unfairly disadvantaged”. This would seem to be reform of the Barnett formula, which invites difficult questions as to whether the Nations should receive more money per head than deprived councils in England.

Region, cities and rural areas

In developing the UK’s cities and regions, the Tories emphasise the role of institutions – connecting Universities to their towns and creating new technical institutions, whereas Labour oppose ‘reinventing the wheel’ with new technical institutions. A Tory government will use a ‘cultural development fund’ to promote culture-led regeneration, while Labour mention rate relief for music venues and ‘agent of change’ planning laws, and powers to protect community assets and pubs, and revive high streets. The conservatives will direct repatriated ESF money (which Labour does not mention) into a UK Shared Prosperity Fund with more accurate targeting for deprived areas.

While the Conservatives only promise to ‘take action’ on air quality, Labour promise a ‘new Clean Air Act’, and retrofits for old bus fleets. However, neither mentions a more radical and effective approach: charging polluting vehicles to enter city centres or commits to a scrappage scheme, both recommendations of ResPublica’s recent Air Necessities report.

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