There are quite a few bright spots for Wessex folk to cheer about in today’s budget – and not just a freeze on cider duty – but look beyond the headlines. It’s good to see money for children’s A&E in Southampton, but isn’t the rest of the NHS on life support? A “more resilient train line in the South West” (in other words, dealing with Dawlish) is backed, though this actually only extends to a feasibility study that’s currently stalled. We mustn’t forget the “£20 million to help young families onto the housing ladder in the South West”, funded from the 3% stamp duty surcharge on additional properties. Osborne says that’s a reward for good behaviour – “proof that when the South West votes blue, their voice is heard loud in Westminster”– but if we controlled our own resources and made our own decisions the cynical bribes wouldn’t be necessary. With MPs in the South West still being urged to rebel over HS2, it seems they could do with more than a little regionalist help in turning up the volume.
We’ll be studying the financial detail before commenting further on those aspects that naturally fall within the Chancellor’s brief. Meanwhile, we can comment at once on those that don’t but are there anyway. ‘Devolution’, so called, can’t be taken seriously so long as it’s viewed as part of some national productivity campaign, no more than a footnote in the Government’s spending plans. Constitutional change should be about democratic renewal, not the further empowerment of unaccountable business interests. Are we happy too with the theft of our publicly funded schools in their entirety? Theft it is, to nationalise the powers of a tier of government closer to the people, without its consent. Where’s the referendum on that?
That’s why the devolution deals announced today are so pitiful. If the local councils agree, there’ll be a Mayor for ‘Avon, Mk. II’, on top of the one Bristol already has, and despite the one Bath has just rejected. Other parts of Wessex are still trying to line up their bids for more of the same. In East Anglia, councils willing, there’ll be a Mayor too, heading the first region-wide elected administration in East Anglian history. Like it or not, there won’t be a Mayor of Wessex. Which is just as well. We demand the open, transparent debate of a legislative assembly, like Wales or Scotland, not a behind-the-scenes fixer placed beyond accountability for a full four-year term. The whole mayoral obsession is part of a failure to understand that London’s dominance over England is about the inter-regional distribution of political power, not the fact that it has a Boris and we don’t.
As with the North East referendum in 2004, what’s currently on offer may end up rejected locally as too little to bother with for the democratic and financial costs attached. We’ve maintained a bold alternative that’s been rejected by all the London parties, essentially for the mortal sin of being ambitious in what we propose for Wessex. All we need say in response is, where’s your vision then? End the excuses, start rolling out REAL regional devolution, and do it now.