Regional devolution is back in the news following the Scottish referendum. The latest proposal to give more power to the regions comes from Ed Miliband, who wants to replace the House of Lords with an elected senate representing the “regions and nations” of the United Kingdom.
I think this is just as daft an idea as the unlamented Regional Assemblies set up by former deputy PM John Prescott. While regions may make for convenient chunks of a map, or weather forecasts, or even a handy way of subdividing statistics, they are no basis for government administrative boundaries.
I live in Evesham, a traditional market town in Worcestershire. For statistical purposes, Worcestershire is part of the West Midlands, which has some value (though not a lot). We also get regional TV for the West Midlands. But we are not, in any meaningful sense, part of a West Midlands identity. My rural market town has nothing more in common with Birmingham – our putative regional capital – than it does with Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool or London.
A regional assembly, or a senate constituency, for the West Midlands would simply mean subsuming our county identity – which is predominately a rural and market town identity, plus the historic cathedral city of Worcester itself – into one dominated by the metropolitan concerns of Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Dudley, etc.
I live in the southern end of the West Midlands. There are parts of Herefordshire which go further south, but not by a lot. Coincidentally, before I moved here, I lived right at the north of the West Midlands, in Stoke-on-Trent. And, trust me, there is very little that Stoke-on-Trent and Evesham have in common, other than needing to go through Birmingham in order to get from one to the other. Oh, and Birmingham Airport is convenient for both. But the one thing we definitely do have in common is that neither of us has any more in common with Birmingham than we do with each other. The idea that Birmingham is somehow a natural or historic capital of the West Midlands, in the way that London is the capital of England, or Worcester is the capital of Worcestershire, is simply laughable.
I don’t think it’s coincidence that most of the proposals for regional government come from the large metropolitan areas. For people in, say, Birmingham (or Manchester, or Newcastle), regional assemblies are a way for them to not only get a bit more freedom from London-based politics for themselves but also to be able to lord it over their suburban and rural hinterlands as well as second tier cities nearby. Those of us in the rural areas or smaller cities don’t gain anything. Instead, we simply have another layer of bureaucracy in between us and Westminster.
Letting the big cities have more power for themselves, London-style, arguably makes sense. But giving the big cities more power over their neighbouring counties does not. And that applies both to old-style Regional Assemblies as proposed by John Prescott and Ed Miliband’s new “Senate for the Regions”.
If we’re going to have a reformed House of Lords, then let’s do it properly and not create a metropolitan oligarchy which takes no account of genuinely local democracy. Instead of creating yet another layer of local government, let’s give more power to the layers we already have.