Before I begin.
This is an unashamedly parochial post. Where I say “we” I mean the people of Herefordshire.
I don’t present it as a fully formed plan but rather as an initial idea to start a debate. I’d love to hear from people in the county, in Wales and, well, pretty much anywhere else.
There are a number of problems, as I see it:
- Policy made for the UK or for England is often unsuitable for Herefordshire. Most people in England, and the UK live at much higher densities than we do in Herefordshire. Solutions designed for Bristol, Birmingham or Bradford are not likely to fit well in Herefordshire. Neither are solutions designed for Warwickshire, Worcestershire or Sussex. They are “rural” counties but not rural like we are. It’s possible our hospital could be controlled from Warwick, our mental health services are controlled from Gloucestershire. The “local” area team that commissions our GPs and other services is based in Worcester.
- There aren’t very many of us. We are large in terms of physical extent but small in terms of population. Most people in the UK would struggle to point to Herefordshire on a map. And why should they? We have little of a voice in national government. Which means that it is hard to influence our own destiny. Our smallness could be our strength. It’s much easier to get a consensus in a small population than a large. If we could make more of our own decisions we could make decisions quickly and include a high proportion of the county in decision making.
- The current devolution settlements have little to offer us and may even be bad for us. The UK is a very centralised state, historically there has been very little scope for real decisions to be made outside of Westminster. That has changed for some parts of the UK. Scotland has a parliament with the ability to make its own decisions on a very wide range of areas that affect the lives of Scottish people. Northern Ireland has a Legislative Assembly with control over much of life in the province. Wales has an Assembly with significant (and growing) power to make decisions over lots of areas that affect people in Wales. The Welsh Assembly also affects us in Herefordshire. The Wales and Borders train franchise which is our North South rail link is being handed to the Welsh Government. People in Carmarthen will have a say over the trains in Herefordshire, people in Herefordshire won’t. We already wrestle with Welsh health boards, GPs and local authorities over access to health services based in Herefordshire.
- Devolution deals are being offered to parts of England. These are much more limited than what the people of Wales and Scotland have and they come with strings attached. Most notably you seem to have to band together with other council areas and elect a mayor to make decisions across that spread. Who should Herefordshire join up with? Worcestershire? We all know how well that went. Gloucestershire? Shropshire? Even with Shropshire we’d be the junior partner in terms of population and any of these groupings would cover a vast area.
Devolution is coming to the West Midlands conurbation. We face being squeezed between Wales and greater Birmingham with decisions that affect our lives being taken in London based on what might work in Kent.
What’s the solution?
I suggest that we need to be able to take more of our own decisions in Herefordshire. We need to run our own health services not receive services designed and delivered in other, distant cities. We need to have the power to make decisions over housing, planning, transport and social care that make sense in Herefordshire. We need to be able to speak to government and other devolved institutions and be sure they will listen.
And that’s basically what devolution is about.
But I don’t think any of us want to create a “National Assembly of Herefordshire” or suddenly have lots more elected officials or highly paid civil servants having lots of meetings in the city centre.
So how can we get real power to make decisions locally without creating unnecessary tiers of government?
My idea is fairly simple: we borrow someone else’s government.
Free Association with Wales.
In international relations there is a concept of “Free Association”. It typically applies when one very small country borders another, much larger country. Both countries remain independent but they agree to co-operate and act in each other’s interests. At international level this is often a lot to do with security and defence which isn’t really relevant here, but I think it’s a nice model to play about with.
So I propose that Herefordshire receives a devolution settlement and enters into “free association” with Wales.
The key parts of this that I see would be:
- The Barnett Formula (the calculation that works out how much money the National Assembly for Wales gets to spend) would be adjusted to include Herefordshire but Herefordshire’s share would be controlled in Herefordshire.
Legislation passed by the assembly in Wales would apply in Herefordshire by default but Herefordshire would be able to exempt itself from Welsh laws. (So we might accept Welsh law over housing but would exempt ourselves from the Welsh Language Measure).
- Herefordshire would agree to cooperate with the Welsh Assembly.
- The Welsh Assembly would agree to consult Herefordshire during the development of legislation.
- Herefordshire would have the power to make decisions over the spending of its budget that would be similar to the power the Welsh Assembly has over its spending decisions.
Why I think this makes sense
- This would give us the ability to make decisions over how to spend money in the right way for the county.
- We could also develop innovative policies that work for Herefordshire without worrying about whether they work anywhere else.
- We wouldn’t have the power to pass laws that applied just to Herefordshire but we should be able to work with the Welsh Assembly to develop laws that work for Herefordshire as well as Wales. Ultimately if we thought that Welsh law wouldn’t work for us we could choose not to apply it but I think it would be in everyone’s interests to develop laws that Herefordshire could accept. It would be better for many people in Wales, particularly mid Wales and Monmouthshire, if Herefordshire and Wales law and policy were more harmonised.
- With only 180,000 people to worry about decisions could be really tailored to the county and it should be much easier for every single one of us to have a real say in decisions.
- We’d still be in England but we’d be recognising that we have a lot of close ties with Wales.
What would we need to make it happen?
- We’d need to convince plenty of people in Herefordshire it was a good idea. Then we’d need to convince plenty of people in Wales it was a good idea, and in particular, demonstrate to the National Assembly that it would be helpful and we wouldn’t simply be freeloading off their Senedd.
- Then we’d need an Act of Parliament.
- We’d need to change the way the council works because it would have extra stuff to do and lots more money to spend. Personally I’d like to see councillors for the new Herefordshire elected on a more proportional system. We should also build in some requirements to ensure that local people are engaged in decision making all the time, not just at budget setting time.
- We’d need to decide how to get hold of the extra skills we need (over things like legislation) without recruiting loads of civil servants. Maybe we could second civil servants from the Welsh Assembly?
Reasons I can see why this might not be such a good idea.
People might be perfectly happy with most of the important decisions being made in London and Birmingham (or Worcester or Shrewsbury).
People might not trust the council, even a new and improved council, with these big decisions.
People on the edges of the county might think that all this will do is push “border effects” from the Wales/Herefordshire border to the Herefordshire/Gloucestershire (and Worcestershire and Shropshire borders).
The people of Wales might not want to cooperate with us.
180,000 might just be too small a population to allow with really big decisions.
Just in case you were wondering I did work for Herefordshire Council for a bit but I don’t any more.
This has been floating around my head for a while but some discussions I had while at Not Westminster over the past couple of days made me think I should write it down.
It’s an idea. There are probably (almost certainly) much better ideas but I think we should start a debate locally. Devolution is already affecting us and it will continue to do so. Cuts, legislation, Brexit will all have impacts in Herefordshire and, at the moment, we haven’t really agreed how we think Herefordshire should handle these impacts.
If we decide as a county how we want devolution, cuts and all the rest to be handled locally parliament might still ignore us.
But if we don’t come up with a plan then we can guarantee that parliament will do what it likes. Which, at best, will be something that would work well in Surrey.
So let’s start talking about this stuff.