Friday, 31 October 2014

Child abuse inquiry: Why we will never know the truth

If evidence was ever needed that the Government is not serious about investigating child-abuse in this country it is now clear for all to see. Concerns are continually expressed that this investigation: should be thorough, should “shine a light” in all sorts of dark places and should not be an establishment cover-up. Unfortunately it doesn't look like this is going to happen.

The first nominee for chair was an outstanding judicial figure with extensive relevant experience. Unfortunately, it turned out that she was compromised because of family relations and was intelligent enough to realise that her position was untenable so she dropped out of the reckoning.

The second nominee for chair, although having many strong qualities, is currently under huge pressure to stand down for a number of reasons:

·       She doesn’t seem to have much in the way of relevant experience – her experience seems to be in privatisation

·       She is clearly an establishment figure in all sorts of ways

·        She has personal links to some of the key people who are subject to investigation

This seems a damming list of negatives. You would think it in a country of some 60 million people, it would be easy to find someone who has relevant experience, is not an establishment figure and has no personal links. The sheer fact that the Home Secretary is desperate to support the current nominee suggests that such a person is NOT what they want to chair this committee. They are clearly scared about what might come out of the woodwork. Why else, did Leon Brittain not pursue the investigation all those years ago – he could probably and clearly see what and who was involved?

 I would suggest that whoever chairs this enquiry should have all of the following key attributes

·         They should NOT be a lawyer – legal advice can be provided to the chair and the committee as needed

·         They should NOT be living/working in London – this is too close to the establishment in this country and there are 53 million other people living outside London

·         They should NOT hold any form of honour (e.g. MBE, Peerage etc) and should indicate that they would not be prepared to accept any such honour in the future. The honours system in the UK is a malignant and malign system designed to turn people who are normally independent in nature into establishment cyphers

·         They must be intelligent and shrewd enough to be able to see through all of the obfuscation and dishonesty that will continually come their way

·         The investigating committee should have its own budget to enable it to acquire its own research and support staff. It is NOT acceptable for support to be provided by Home Office civil servants. The loyalties of those civil servant are to the Home Secretary who will be fully briefed about what is happening and will try to interfere. Forget “Chinese Walls” etc – they always fail.

·         They must have some experience of work in a relevant field (e.g. children’s services) although they don’t, necessarily, have to be an expert. The committee itself will be full of experts.

·         They should be able to demonstrate a background of independent thought and have a skin as thick as a rhinoceros. They are sure to face an immense amount of pressure and bullying from a variety of sources

·         They should have a good life insurance policy

Of course, there is not a “cat in hells” chance of this happening. There are reputations, fortunes and goodness knows what else at stake here and it is seen as far too dangerous to let the truth come out.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Where on earth are we going with public expenditure

In my inaugural professorial lecture at Nottingham Business School in 2009 I discussed the situation of UK public finances and the future of public services. (
One point I made was that the current situation was such that it should not be seen as a blip in the long term trend of increased expenditure on public services. Instead I suggested that it might be seen as a watershed in our social and economic history and something which should require a radical reconsideration about the way public services are organised and financed.

Since 2010, the present government has embarked on a “so-called” policy of austerity designed to eliminate the public sector deficit, reduce annual borrowing and stop the continually increasing mountain of public debt now around £1trillion. Originally the government aimed to eliminate the deficit and associated borrowing by the end of this parliament but this has not proved possible and, at the current time, it is unclear when the deficit might be eliminated. Thus the government is still borrowing billions of pounds each month which will have to be repaid ultimately by our children and grandchildren.

Until recently, at least the government could claim that its borrowing was being reduced even if not as quickly as would be desired. However, this week there came a sharp jolt. Government figures showed that government borrowing for September 2014 was £11.8 billion which was £1.6billion than for September 2013. This was much higher than expected and caused by a failure of limited economic growth to deliver higher tax receipts.

One particular point I mentioned, in my inaugural lecture, was that the constraints on future public spending were such that if the government wished to try and change people’s behaviours in some positive manner they would probably need to think more about sanctions for bad behaviour and less about financial incentives (which cost money) to encourage good behaviour. An example here might be actions to try and encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles and subsequently reduce the burden on the NHS – this could be approached by using sanctions or incentives.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, to read that in the same week as the bad news about government borrowing was announced, the government has come up with two new and expensive schemes designed to try and change individual behaviour by the use of financial incentives. These were

·         Dementia – proposals were announced to pay general practitioners £55 for every dementia patient they identify. Leave aside the ethics and practicality of all this, it seem surprising that in these financially constrained times we are using public money to pay GPs to do what I thought they were already supposed to do under their existing contract
·         Obesity vouchers – suggestions, from government sources, have been made that the NHS might use its limited resources to offer financial incentives in the form of shopping vouchers to individual citizens in return for them losing weight.
These items come on top of a party political conference season where the main political parties competed with each other to see who could promise to spend the largest amount of public money (which we haven’t got and must borrow) on the NHS. 

It seems to me that the radical reconsideration of public services, which I referred to earlier, just hasn’t happened and the “chickens will shortly be coming home to roost”. Expect more large scale cuts in public spending after the general election irrespective of whoever wins. Also, the problems of the Eurozone and the World economy mean that another major economic crisis can’t be ruled out.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

What will become of Scotland after this?

Five days before the Scottish referendum on independence, I look at what I see as a very bleak picture. For one thing, it seems inevitable that the result of the referendum, whichever way it goes, will be tight and, secondly, there seems huge polarisation in Scotland regarding independence – the young support it more than the old, men support it more than women, poorer people support it more than better off people and some parts of Scotland support it whereas others don’t. Thus whatever the results, I see huge divisions in Scottish society which will take years to heal and recriminations with cries of traitor, liar etc echoing throughout Scotland for a long time.  

If the result is a close “no” then many in the nationalist movement will be outraged about having come some so close yet so far from independence. Cries of treachery and selling out will abound, in some circumstances resulting in violence because of the passions aroused. Blame will be levied against the UK government, the media, international organisations etc. However, particular furore will be reserved for those businesses and banks who, close to referendum day, indicated their possible withdrawal from Scotland in the event of a “yes” vote. From outside those business organisations themselves, it is difficult to say whether these threats are real or not. Maybe they are real but, however, it is, of course, also possible that these banks and businesses were “persuaded”, by the Westminster government to issue these threats given the stakes involved. One of the most controversial aspects of UK society is the honours system whereby people in high places can be persuaded to do or say almost anything in return for a peerage or a knighthood. Make no doubt the London elite will stop at nothing to keep Scotland in the UK because the loss of Scotland could be the start of the break-up of the UK. No doubt, in years to come, when some businessman or politician decides to published memoirs, the truth will be revealed. Also, I have no doubt that a close vote in these circumstances, coupled with an inability by Westminster governments, to learn the lessons of this campaign, will just fuel a demand for a further referendum in years to come

On the other hand if the result is a close “yes” then, in years to come, the government of an independent Scotland will have the complex and difficult task of negotiating a good settlement, with the rest of the UK, on many many issues, and this may be difficult if the loss of Scotland leads to a surly and unhelpful attitude among politicians and the public in England (as it well may). This may result in a very difficult relationship between Scotland and its closest neighbour. Also, the promises made by the “yes” campaign, at the time of the referendum, to the people of Scotland (e.g. the NHS, welfare etc) may turn out to have been wildly optimistic and/or uncertain. In the eyes of the Scottish electorate these promises made at the time of the referendum may turn out to be hollow and a political and societal backlash can be expected.

The French Revolution is often dated by historians as having taken place between 1789 and 1799 but clearly its effects lasted for much longer. At the time of the bicentennial celebrations in 1989, the then Chinese Premier Chou en Lai was asked what he thought was the lasting impact of the French Revolution (some 200 years earlier) on human society and history. Mr Chou’s pithy response was “It is far too early to tell”. The point being made by Mr Chou was that major events like the French Revolution have implications that keep echoing for many centuries into the future.

Maybe this is true of Scottish independence and its impact on Scotland and the rest of the UK and even on Europe. Many decades from now, historians may be pointing to the closely fought referendum campaign with all its passion and deceits as having been the trigger which set in force changes which ricochet through to the present time. Clearly it is not just something which just effects the present day Scots.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Whither the UK after Scottish independence

With less than two weeks to go to the referendum on Scottish independence, the final result still seems in doubt with the yes campaign seemingly getting a surge of support while a strong proportion of people are still undecided which may to vote. One thing we can be sure of is that if the vote is a yes for independence then this will be the start of a long process of negotiation with the rest of the UK about a huge range of topics such as: the pound, national debt, border controls, armed forces etc etc. Equally if the vote is to stay in the union we can also be certain that this will result in further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament.

The United Kingdom is the term used to describe the union of the four parts of the UK namely England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (It is also referred to as Great Britain and Northern Ireland). The background to each of these UK entities is clearly different with Wales being annexed and absorbed into England as far back as the sixteenth century while Scotland was united with England (including Wales) via the Acts of Union in 1706 (England) and 1707 (Scotland). Consequently, Scotland retained much of the trappings of an independent state with its own legal system, its own money notes etc. Northern Ireland is different again. While the island of Ireland was a British colony for many centuries, Northern Ireland came into being in 1921 with the partition of Ireland into the Irish Free State (and ultimately the Republic of Ireland) and the six counties of  Northern Ireland  which remained part of the UK.

In the latter part of the 20th century, devolved government was given to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland with a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and Assemblies in Cardiff and Dublin. However, the term devolution is an umbrella term and the scope of devolution varies between the three countries. Although England comprises over 84% of the population of the UK, no devolution of government has been applied in England and indeed the abolition of regional offices and regional development agencies in England would seem to suggest the opposite trend to that in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In the light of this background it is interesting to speculate what a vote for Scottish independence might mean for the other parts of the UK.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland was created basically because the people of Northern Ireland wanted to remain in union with the rest of the United Kingdom rather than be part of an independent Ireland. Hence one now has to ask the question what happens when the union itself is changing through the loss of Scotland. Union with the Republic of Ireland is probably unthinkable and maintaining the existing union in the absence of Scotland may also not be seen as desirable. Northern Ireland might consider becoming an independent state itself (this has been postulated in the past as a possible solution to the Irish troubles) but it would be a very small state similar in size to Estonia. Another possibility suggested is that Northern Ireland might seek some sort of union with an independent Scotland. After all, a large part of the population of Northern Ireland are descendants of Scottish immigrants of the 17th century and share many cultural similarities.


At the time of writing there is no real appetite for full independence in Wales with about 12% of the population supporting the idea and 74% opposing it. However, history shows that this situation can change. In 1979, the Welsh people were strongly against any form of devolution but by the time of the 1989 referendum a majority were in favour.

Welsh opinion on this matter can be influenced by any number of factors such as the performance of the Welsh economy, the attitude of the UK government towards Wales etc. A largely English government angered by the loss of Scotland, and seeing this as a form of betrayal, might (however unwittingly) react badly against the remaining parts of the UK including Wales.  Moreover, consideration must also be given to the “me too” effect with some Welsh people saying to themselves that if independence can be offered to Scotland then why not Wales as well. A key issue here will be the attitude of the UK government towards Scotland on the details of the negotiation of independence. If the UK government is seen to be unfair to Scotland then this may result in sympathy for Scotland from inside Wales.

Finally, the issue of the Welsh language must also be mentioned as this is not really an issue in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Too many people in Wales, a vote for independence for Wales will be seen as a vote for further promotion of the Welsh language which is a controversial issue. Perhaps the key issue here is the extent to which the independence movement can keep itself separate from the Welsh language movement in Wales


Scotland will be independent but as already noted the details of what constitutes an independent Scottish state will probably take many years to resolve. Aside from the detail perhaps the key issues are the political and economic relationships with other countries. Starting first with the remaining parts of the UK, the relationship with Northern Ireland has already been mentioned with closer ties and possible union with Scotland being a possibility. Ties with Wales might be strengthened in some ways but is difficult to see this being significant.

Scotland has expressed a strong interest in becoming a full member of the European Union (but presumably not the Eurozone in the light of its strongly expressed wish to retain the pound). Whether this comes to fruition, what form it might take and when it will happen seems to me to be a big exercise in crystal ball gazing and could take many years to achieve, if at all.

Perhaps the key issue is the relationship between Scotland and England. This means the attitude of an independent Scotland towards England (meaning the UK government and English society) COUPLED WITH the attitude of England towards an independent Scotland. To me, it seems this relationship could vary from constructive and welcoming to strongly adversarial and antagonistic.  If the relationship leans towards the latter then trouble could be brewing for both countries.


I think there are two issues here:-

·         The attitude of England towards the remaining parts of the UK

·         The attitude of the UK government towards the English regions

The first point has already been touched on and it will be interesting to see the attitude of England towards the other parts of the UK on a number of issues. Firstly the numbers of Welsh and Northern Irish MPs will come under stronger scrutiny as will their involvement in English issues (the so called West Lothian question). Also, under scrutiny will be the allocation of public resources to Wales and Northern Ireland which is traditionally well above the UK average.

Following independence, the proportion of the UK population which is English will rise from 84% to 92%.  In another article I have argued that much of the impetus for Scottish independence comes from their dislike of over-centralised and London based government rather than Englishness in general. Observations I have made suggest that this anti-London feeling is also strong in many of the English regions particularly in the North of the country. What will be the reaction of those regions to Scottish independence (particularly if it is seen to be a success) while the regions themselves with populations similar to or greater than Scotland’s continue to be ruled by an isolated and unrepresentative London elite with whom they have little in common. Might there be an upsurge in support for English devolution.


We must wait to see what happens but if Scotland goes independent the future of the union doesn’t look good.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The NHS needs more than “reform”

For several years now, I have been arguing the case that the NHS, as currently configured, is financially unsustainable (see blogs below). This issue really became clear to me some ten years ago with the publication of the first Wanless report which effectively indicated that the only way that the NHS, as currently configured, could become financially sustainable in the longer term was through the achievement of a series of objectives which most informed people regarded as unachievable. Wanless was effectively a political document designed to support Gordon Brown’s views about leaving the NHS alone as opposed to Tony Blair’s view that this was unsustainable.

Fast forward eight years and we hit the era of the Great Recession and financial austerity. Although the NHS was “protected” from the pressures of austerity, it was left with a tiny amount of growth in resources each year.  I will not enter the complex debate, as to how big or small that tiny amount actually is but let us just recall that it was light years away from the substantial levels of growth the NHS has achieved throughout its history and even further away from the growth it received in the Brown/Blair years.

As a consequence of financial austerity, the NHS was given a target of making £20 billion of efficiency savings over a four year period which would release resources that could be ploughed back into new services, particularly those related to the needs of an ageing population. Many of us argued, at the time, that this target was also unachievable and was a challenge which no health system in the world had ever achieved. Despite valiant efforts from NHS managers and staff, it is becoming quite clear now that these efficiency savings will not be delivered to the required level and that the NHS is running into serious financial trouble pretty fast. Indeed, in my opinion the financial problems facing the NHS have taken longer to materialise that I expected four years ago when austerity commenced. This must be due to the sterling efforts of NHS managers and staff in making some progress on the cost savings front

Not surprisingly, the clarion calls are now starting to come out of the various London think tanks etc that the NHS needs another round of “reform” as a consequence of these financial problems. As someone who can remember, and was personally involved, in the “reforms” of the NHS which took place in: 1974, 1982, 1984, 1991, 1997, 2013 etc perhaps I can be excused a little weariness and cynicism about reforms which involve such things as: structural changes, reform to the commissioning process, changes to the internal market etc etc. I think we are well past that point and the types of changes needed to the NHS at this point in time and far more radical that has been the case in the past.  

I would suggest that some of the key founding principles of the NHS, in 1948, were:-

·         Comprehensive – the NHS was charged with delivering a comprehensive range of health services provision at the local level which, to a large extent, it still does.

·         Free – NHS services were to be provided free at the point of consumption. Although charges have subsequently been introduced, over the years, for some purpose, the services provided are still largely free

·         National – the NHS was to be a national service. At the time of its inception, Aneurin Bevan emphasised the importance of having a national system with uniformity of standards and not a series of local systems with variations in standards. In practice, and in spite of being subject to endless centralised control, the NHS has become a system with significant variations in standards across the country. Although attempts have been made to decentralise the NHS, these always seem to fail. Indeed as Chris Ham noted recently, (Public Finance Blog, 11 June 2014) the government’s recent NHS reforms which were meant to devolve power away from Whitehall have not done this and the NHS still remains one of the most centralised health systems in the world

·         Tax funded – the NHS is financed almost entirely from the proceeds of taxes levied by central government with relatively small amounts from other sources. It must be emphasised that the NHS is financed from the general pool of taxes collected by Government so that individuals see no link between the taxes they pay and the amount spent on the NHS. In the past, polls have suggest that people do not want to pay more in general taxation (the tax burden is constantly raising) but are more open to a tax levied specifically to fund the NHS.

What I am about to say will probably cause apoplexy in some quarters but it has to be said. The originating principles of the NHS were wonderful principles at the time (nearly 70 years ago) but the world has changed radically and these principles now need amending if the NHS is to survive. The NHS as currently configured is broken and needs to be fixed. I say this as someone brought up in a strong Labour Party family and born not ten miles from where Aneurin Bevan lived.

There are five things I would emphasise regarding the sorts of changes needed:

·         Funding – the NHS needs more money and always will. It is not going to generate the level of savings needed and we just as well stop pretending that it will. People don’t want to pay more in general taxes and so we must look elsewhere. There are two obvious candidates which space only allows me to mention here. Firstly charges need to become a much greater source of income for the NHS. I know this breaches the “free at the point of consumption” principle but it is something that many developed countries operate without the sky falling in. Moreover, any charges levied must be able to raise a substantial amount of money. We don’t want something like (English) prescription charges where you exempt a huge proportion of the population such that the volume of funds raised is limited. Secondly we have to, at least consider the merits of introducing some form of health insurance or earmarked taxation model for funding health services where people pay according to what they earn and they know the money raised goes towards the NHS. At the point when health insurance is mentioned, many people default to the view that “we don’t want to end up like the Americans”. In my experience, most Americans don’t want to end up like the Americans but they don’t know the way out of the mess. The reality is that there are several countries who operate health insurance models (private and/or public) which work well and deliver better health services than in the UK. We must at least consider them. Whether we want the health insurance model to also incorporate some sort of premium penalty for those undertaking risky health behaviours is also a point of debate. It must be remembered that a basic principle of “insurance” is that premiums should reflect risk.

·         Prevention – it is well known that a huge proportion of NHS expenditure is spent on treating medical conditions which can be prevented by changes to individual’s behaviour and lifestyles (e.g. smoking, obesity, alcohol consumption etc). Changing such behaviours in millions of people appears a herculean task of public policy. In my inaugural professorial lecture in 2009, I speculated that one aspect of public policy under austerity was that government would probably need to become more authoritarian in its attitude towards certain of its citizens. To some extent this has already happened in areas of public policy such as “troubled families” and social welfare benefits.  In relation to health such an approach might involve a greater element of sanctions for pursuing unhealthy behaviours rather than incentives to adopt healthy lifestyles. One example such as this (referred to above) would be higher premiums under a social health insurance model.

·         Diversity – the NHS has often been described as the last great public sector monopoly in the UK. Through policies of contestability, there have been changes in the involvement of private providers in NHS services the proportion is still pretty small. In many other countries we find a much greater diversity of provision in involving: government, religious orders, not for profit organisations and for-profit organisations. Maybe further diversity of provision needs to be encouraged.

·         Decentralisation – I have already noted the extreme centralisation of the NHS as a health system and the failure to achieve de-centralisation. To be honest, I have no idea how this could be achieved other than significant constitutional change in the UK (Malcolm Prowle, Public Finance Blog, 12 June 2014)

·         Political consensus – Nigel Lawson once observed that the NHS is the national religion of the UK with an unchallengeable theology. My observations of the last forty years are that when any political party is in government it tries to achieve some reforms and changes in the NHS. However, when in opposition, political parties of all colours fall back on policies which, by and large, comprise the following: spend more public money on the NHS, employ more doctors and nurses, reduce the number of NHS managers and administrators, not close any hospitals (however decrepit, unsafe and ineffective they may be) and not change anything. Unsurprisingly these sorts of policies are almost universally supported by health professional representatives and trade unions. Coupled with strong publicity from the media this makes it incredibly difficult to achieve the level of change actually needed in the NHS. Moreover, this sort of mentality often blocks reforms which are needed to improve health care. Unless we can achieve some sort of political consensus on health (as we have in some policy areas), we face an endless cycle of political parties in opposition promising things which go down well with the electorate (even though the electorate is wrong) and when in government trying to reform the NHS but being opposed by other political parties, the media and the health professions. A recipe for stagnation.

Although we live in an era of austerity I suspect that the worse NHS finances get and the closer we move towards the election then the more likely it is that the Chancellor will find some additional funding from somewhere to tide the NHS past election day. However, post-election the NHS will return to the existing unsustainable position facing the same choices.

Related Blogs


Monday, 16 June 2014

Local Government in Wales: Merger or Re-design

The issue of reform of the local government system in Wales has been a hot topic for discussion for many years but the debate was fuelled some months ago by the publication of the Williams report which suggested that local government services could be delivered more efficiently by fewer councils and suggested a new local authority map for Wales.

At its annual conference later this week, the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) is due to discuss (among other things) the issue of prospective local government reform in Wales. The latest contribution to the debate has come from the Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith who has urged council leaders in Wales to "pick up the baton" and take the lead in reforming local government. He argues that councils should be trusted to drive any possible mergers on, presumably, a voluntary basis, rather than be forced to do so by diktats from the Welsh government.

Such a suggestion seems, to me, to display a certain degree of naivety and lack of understanding of the issues involved, a situation not uncommon in opposition politicians lacking the support of teams of experienced civil servants of researchers and forced to make up policy “on the hoof”.

Firstly, can we be sure that any voluntary mergers are undertaken on the basis of what is best for services users and the general public and not for political reasons. It is easy to see how possible mergers could be developed on the basis of which political party would exert control over the merged authority and rejected where a political party realised it was unlikely to gain political control.

Secondly, can we be sure that any mergers proposed by existing local authorities would constitute the “right” merger. It is important that there is a clear strategic rationale for the merger and it must be seen that merger is a means not an end. However, this is not always the case and quite often the merger undertaken is the “wrong” merger and thus the benefits are just not realised. I have been involved in the examination of many possible mergers of public authorities and although alternative merger options were sometimes available but these were just not considered. Sometimes this is just a case of inadequate consideration and analysis of the options available but sometimes it is just a party political issue. Also, while it may seem astounding, I have seen examples of mergers where the merger partner was chosen for opportunistic reasons such as there being a vacant chief executive post which was felt to be an easier merger option than one where a choice has to be made between two chief executives for the posts in the merged organisation.

It is also important when we talk about local government reform to be clear about whether we are talking about “merger” or what I call “re-design” - the terms are not necessarily synonymous. By merger, we are probably talking about bolting existing local authority units together in groups of 2 or 3 and then fashioning a new organisation structure for a local authority now covering the area of the original 2/3 authorities. In the 1996 local government reorganisation in Wales, this is essentially what happened. The then county councils were abolished and the then district councils were merged into larger units at the same time taking over the county council functions. At the time, some of us involved in the merger process in Wales, whimsically commented that it seemed to us that the then Welsh Office must have had “flat maps”. This is because some of the mergers that were taking place seemed to pay no cognisance to the physical geography of the constituent parts. For example, the merger of Cynon Valley and Rhondda Valley into the new authority (RCT) seemed to ignore the fact that there were high mountains between the two valleys and poor transport links.

Re-design is a far more difficult exercise and involves starting with what is effectively “a clean sheet of paper” as far as Welsh Local Government is concerned. A new pattern of local government would need to be developed which, effectively, ignores what currently exists and focusses instead on what will best meet the needs of the people of Wales over the next 2-3 decades. Such an exercise is complex and would involve taking account of a range of factors when considering how future local government boundaries should be drawn. Some of the factors to be considered include the following:

·         Population – there is no need for all local authorities to be of the same population size but there, needs to be some idea of what would constitute an optimum size. Also consideration needs to be given to the structure of the population, particularly in relation to age structure and the impact of the ageing population and numbers of children being born.

·         Demographic changes – demographic changes in area can take place for a number of reasons including: growth in residences, changes in employment patters, ageing populations etc. Any re-design of local government needs to consider possible demographic changes in the years ahead

·         Need for services – based on a range of factors such as population size, population structure, physical environment etc, consideration would need to be given to the need for local government services and the ease of delivery of those services in the years ahead.

·         Equality of resources – like many parts of the UK, there are large variations within in Wales in terms of income and wealth. This has implications for a local authority’s ability to raise revenues through council tax and charges. Many parts of the current Welsh local government system bring together some of the poorest parts of Wales with the consequent dearth of resources. Consideration should be given to options for new local authorities which provide some degree of equalisation of income and wealth by combining richer and poorer communities in one local authority.

·         Physical geography – this has already been touched on and in redesigning local government the physical geography of possible local government units and the ease of transportation between different parts of the area need to be considered.

·         Community cohesion – potential new local government units will probably comprise a number of different communities with different cultures and backgrounds. The extent to which these various communities might cohese or fragment needs to be considered.

·         Employment and travel to work patterns – changes in the labour markets mean that travel to work patterns from different residential areas have changed and will continue to change in the future. For example, in the South Wales valleys many of the travel to work patterns of local communities now operate in a North-South manner whereas existing local government units operate on an East-West basis. Future changes in travel to work patterns are a key consideration in any re-design of Welsh local government.

Not surprisingly, most debate on local government reform tends to focus on the merger of existing units because this is a relatively easy thing to do. I say relatively since although such mergers could be easily done in most commercial organisations, the political and consultative nature of local government still makes it a difficult exercise. However, re-design of local government from a zero base is a very complex exercise which needs analysis and consideration of a large volume of data and imaginative ideas about future options. However, although more difficult, if done properly it is likely to generate a more robust configuration for local government than the merger approach.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Scottish Independence: The problem is London

Less than 100 days to go now to the Scottish referendum on independence and panic is starting to set in among the political elites, particularly in those parties supporting retention of the union. Never in their wildest dreams did they expect the Scots to vote for independence and the polls seem to suggest a strong majority for retention of the union. However, the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said “a week in politics is a long time” and indeed this is the case. The latest polls suggest a very tight race with a serious possibility of the Scots voting to leave the United Kingdom.

So what has gone wrong? Well on the one hand it was bad luck or bad planning for the Scottish referendum to be proffered by a Conservative government. Toryism is still  toxic brand in large parts of Scotland and a vote for the union is increasingly being seen as a vote for the Tories even though the “Better Together” campaign represents all main UK parties and is chaired by a former Labour (and Scottish) Cabinet Minister, Alistair Darling. Arguably, the more David Cameron appears on television urging Scots to vote for the union the more the Tory-hating Scots are going to vote for independence. If it had been a Labour Government that had offered a referendum then things may have been different. However, that is the way the cookie crumbles.

Then, there is the general backlash against the established UK political parties of all colours. In England, if you are completely disillusioned (as many are) with the existing Con/ Lib/Lab trinity, there isn’t much you can do about it other than stay at home on voting day or vote for UKIP which millions have already done. Those of us in Wales and Scotland have the luxury of being able to vote for established nationalist parties (Plaid Cymru and the SNP). Thus many Scots voting for independence may really just showing two fingers to the established UK political parties.

However, I suggest there is another issue. The roots of this problem are deeper and are based on the dominance of London in the UK. Firstly, the population of London dominates the UK population to an extent rarely seen in other developed countries. Secondly, London (and the rest of the South East) dominate the UK economically as a consequence of the concentration of financial, business, government and third sector organisations based in the capital. Thirdly London dominates the UK politically with most of the levers of political power being based in London. For most of the UK, public services are planned and managed via a strongly top-down command and control process driven from Whitehall and Westminster with limited regional or local discretion and this creates alienation from government coupled with large scale dis-satisfaction about the effectiveness of public policies.

In 1992, the then Leader of the House of Commons, the late Robin Cook (also a Scot), stated that “Britain was the most centralized state in the EU”. Many also argue that the UK is one of the most centralised states in the world. Indeed the Economist journal once suggested that the UK was the second most centralised country in the developed world after New Zealand which is, after all, a tiny country. By contrast in most developed countries the capital city is not even the largest city and so only in the UK does the largest city dominate politically, economically and demographically to such an

Fifteen years ago the Blair Government initiated a policy of devolution which led to the creation of devolved Assemblies/Parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Devolved administrations for English regions were also toyed with in some places but were rejected by the local electorates who saw not true devolution to the local level but the imposition of another tier of government at additional cost to the taxpayer. The devolution approach adopted in the UK was very limited in that it only applied to certain areas of Government policy and, by definition, only applied to the 15% of the UK population in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Moreover the whole process of devolution has been messy with add-ons to the original devolution settlement taking place every few years. Not surprisingly the whole devolution process suffers from a huge failure of understanding. A recent poll showed that in Wales almost half of those old thought the Welsh NHS was still the responsibility of the UK Government as opposed to the Welsh Government.

I wish, therefore, to put forward a view that one of the main reasons for increasing support for Scottish independence is not a rejection of England per se but a rejection of London based dominance in public affairs. Many people in Scotland, Wales and indeed in many parts of England dislike intensely the dominance, arrogance, and patronising attitude of the London based  elites in politics, the media, the arts etc with which they have nothing in common. To Scots, achieving an independent Scotland would be seen as an end to London dominance whether or not that would be the case.

Rather than limited devolution to the celtic regions, a solution to this problem might have been the conversion of the UK into a proper federal state with the powers of the various tiers of government defined and enshrined in a written constitution. At the moment the continued existence of the devolved administrations is not constitutionally protected but is in the gift of the UK parliament and could, in theory, be repealed at any time.

Under a federal structure, the federal government based in London would have responsibility for certain policy areas best organised on a UK basis such as defence and foreign affairs. Responsibility for other policy areas would be devolved to regional based governments (e.g. Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and English regions however configured). Policy in areas such as education and health would be developed and implemented at the regional level without interference from the federal tier and this would also be constitutionally protected. Clearly the size of the federal government, in terms of elected representatives and civil servants, would be vastly smaller than the current UK government but regional government structures would need to be developed in the regions of England.

What are the chances of such a federal arrangement being considered let alone implemented in the UK? I would say approximately nil. The same London based elites referred to above would ensure that it never happened since their loss in power and influence would be enormous. Consequently, I think the break-up of the UK is very much on the cards. First Scotland may well go independent and, if it did, then Wales, on a me-too basis, might demand a similar referendum which might also lead to Welsh independence. However, I may be wrong – let’s remember the old adage “It ain't over till the fat lady sings” and there are less than a hundred days to go to the referendum. We live in interesting times.

This blog was first published on the Public Finance blog site: