Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Evolving to localism

My last post on the relationship between my ideas of localism and the Campaign for an English Parliament have raised some interesting debate on the CEP site.

One commenter in particular asked a very pertinent question:
Do you really envisage having different income tax levels at community level, some communities levying council tax, others local income tax, tuition fees in some English universities not in others, free prescriptions charges in some areas, not in others etc? it would be chaotic and unmanageable.
This is prime facie a valid criticism, but it's actually based on a slight misconception of what I am proposing. It's understandable though in that I haven't yet set out my ideas for how we would get to the kind of decentralised state I'm after. So here they are now.

My theory is that power needs to reside at the lowest possible level - a level I have called community. This term is strongly suggestive of a very small unit - perhaps a village or a suburb. I picked the term because I felt that it was probably the size of administrative unit that might eventually be settled upon, but this is not necessarily the case.
A community could easily be a much larger unit - district, county or (heavens preserve us) region.

What I propose should happen is that powers over most areas of life should reside with communities, but that these powers should be allowed to be passed up to higher levels of government if this is what the community wants. Likewise powers can be taken back if they change their minds.

But, and here's the crux of the matter, I'm not proposing a revolution. The transitional arrangements would be all-important. On day one of the new constitution, the only thing that would change would be the tax system. Power to raise taxes would be passed to the initial set of communities - I assume for the sake of argument that these would be the ancient counties - but it would be assumed as an opening position that all of the other community powers had been passed upwards to national government. So on day one, pretty much everything stays the same. The administration of government and public services is largely unchanged. The NHS is still run from Whitehall, as are the schools and universities.

But underneath it all, power has been taken away from the centre, and a process of experimentation and devolution can begin. Communities can experiment with taking back responsibility for particular areas from the centre. They can try breaking themselves into smaller units if they think that might work. If they do work, fine. If not, then they can pass responsibility back upwards. But it's all evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

All the difficulties in delivering services when there are different systems in place may well be valid, but what I propose offers a chance for people to try to find a way round them. By way of an example it's not hard to imagine a country in which universities charge fees to students, and some communities choose to subsidise these fees while others choose to tax less and not subsidise. Could we get from where we are now to this kind of arrangement? I have no idea, but it is surely not unimaginable that the communities could agree among themselves to have the universities charge the full economic price of their education and let each community decide for itself how much to subsidise. We'll never find out unless we give people the chance to try.

To turn to the taxation side of the equation, I don't really accept the argument that you must have a single system and a single set of rates and allowances countrywide. Even in the UK at the moment, we have rates bills set locally. And while there is a single system for local taxes, this doesn't necessarily need to be the case, as shown in the US, where various states choose to levy sales, income and property taxes. My proposal therefore only needs a single definition of who is taxable where - based presumably on their main residence - in order to function properly.

I don't assume that I have the gift of foresight. I don't know what size a community should be or what powers it should retain. That's for others to find the answers to. But I do think we need a constitutional arrangement which allows them to look for those answers as best they can.