Independence for Herefordshire 2.0
I wrote a piece a few weeks ago about how significant devolution for Herefordshire could work. I’ll be going to an event at De Koffee Pot on 5th July at 7.30 to discuss this with anyone else who is interested. Please do come along if you can. It’s part of the Talk Shop series run by Perry Walker.
In preparation for that and based on feedback on my original post I’ve tried to marshall my points
The problems as I see it
Government policy doesn’t work for Herefordshire
Policy is made in Westminster for the UK or England. Either way policy has to fit a huge and diverse country. Herefordshire is not typical of either England or the UK. We’re a long way from big cities, sparsely populated and surrounded by other rural areas. Even in the days when we had specific rural policy it was made for Kent and Warwickshire not Herefordshire.
Devolution will squeeze us
We border Wales. Wales has devolution. Public policy and legislation is already significantly different between Wales and England. Wales, quite rightly, makes decisions based on the interests of its own citizens but those decisions affect us. Where the Welsh NHS chooses to send its patients, how Welsh local authorities choose to deal with people coming out of Hereford hospital, how the Welsh Government approaches the Wales (and Borders) franchise are all points that directly impact on Herefordshire. Now we have a mayor in the West Midlands and we are starting to feel the impact of that. Almost all of our trains, just for example, are under the control of the Welsh Government or the Mayor of the West Midlands. The people of Bangor and Balsall Heath have more say over our train services than we do.
English devolution is a mess
The government has made devolution deals in parts of the country. These, compared to what Wales has, are extremely timid and they come with considerable strings. Not least the requirement to set up a “combined authority” with a directly elected mayor.
If we sit here and do nothing, it seems to me, the PCC for West Mercia will turn into that mayor. West Mercia covers Telford, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. And you thought Hereford and Worcester was bad.
The current direction of travel will leave us with a remote and unaccountable mayor who actually has little power and will still deliver services that don’t make sense in our county.
So I suggest
We need proper devolution to Herefordshire
We need power to take significant decisions for the county. As a starting point let’s be able to take the same decisions for Herefordshire that the Welsh Assembly (soon to be called Welsh Parliament) can take for Wales. And we’ll need a budget to match so let’s use the Barnet formula to decide what would be a fair funding deal for Herefordshire.
A new assembly for Herefordshire
This would give us the opportunity to change the way we elect people and take decisions. A Herefordshire Assembly with power to make decisions over health services, the environment, council services, and education should not be the same as the current council.
We’d have to decide what sort of model we wanted but my guess is a model like Scotland or Wales with constituency members and a top-up list would be a good starting point.
We could allow a lot more decision making at town, city and parish level, including decisions over health services. Which doesn’t mean those decisions would be made by the current town and parish councils. You see if we were able to make our own decisions we could decide what was the best way for us in the county.
Real devolution includes the power to pass laws. It’s not totally unrealistic to imagine that 180,000 people could pass their own laws. We’ve twice the population of Jersey and they seem to get on alright.
On the other hand we aren’t Jersey. We’re not an independent island state, we’re a part of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom. Though I’ve called this post “Independence for Herefordshire” that’s supposed to be tongue in cheek. I’m not suggesting we declare UDI.
We could just stick with the status quo but I think that will bring us real problems. Parliament has shown itself to be very relaxed about passing laws that have profound implications locally without being that bothered about the 180,000 folk in Herefordshire. Just for example Herefordshire Council and Herefordshire Primary Care Trust were in a deep partnership. You may or may not have thought that was a good idea but it ended not because we, in Herefordshire, decided to end it but because parliament swept away our PCT.
So if we want to have control over legislation we either need to give legislative competence to this new Herefordshire Assembly or have a mechanism to veto legislation passed in parliament if it’s going to adversely affect us.
Personally I favour having this veto power rather than passing our own laws. If we use it smartly we can influence legislation without having to create the trappings of a tiny parliament for ourselves. I further think that it would be smart to have this power with the Welsh Assembly rather than UK parliament. We’re much more important to Wales than we are to England and so Wales is likely to pay more attention to what the legal framework is in Herefordshire.
Free association with Wales
I’ve been using the term free association because it seems to capture the sort of relationship I envisage. It’s not strictly the right term. In international relations free association tends to involve a big country providing defence and security for a smaller one.
What I’m trying to describe is a situation where Herefordshire remains outside Wales. But we freely enter into a relationship with Wales because it will be in our mutual interest. Core to this relationship would be allowing Welsh Assembly legislation to affect Herefordshire but with the Herefordshire Assembly able to veto the effect of laws it was unhappy with.
If we get this right we could negotiate early in the passage of bills and create legislation that benefits the citizens of Herefordshire and the citizens of Wales. We could choose to join Welsh institutions where it was in our interests (Powys and Herefordshire health board perhaps?) but not be obliged to.
Let’s at least talk about it
I’m just one bloke and my ideas are as likely to be as terrible as anyone else. It’s got to be a good idea to talk about what we want though. Hasn’t it?
If you agree we should talk about it. Please come along to De Koffee Pot, Left Bank, Hereford on 5th July at 7.30 pm.