Sunday, 6 September 2015

County Senates - The Missing Element Of Devolution?

Much of England is still covered by two-tier local government, where you have the higher-tier council (normally at a county level) and then lower-tier ones (which will be city, borough or district councils).

The Local Government Act 1992 introduced the idea of unitary authorities in non-metropolitan areas, and as a result, the Hampshire (Cities of Portsmouth and Southampton) (Structural Change) Order 1995 was signed by David Curry, then the Minister for Local Government, which stripped Hampshire County Council of any powers in Portsmouth and Southampton and turned their City Councils into unitary authorities.

Where you have a two-tier system, the councils have responsibility for different matters. This can cause confusion among people who think in terms of a single entity - "the council" - and this leads to moaning newspaper letters about how your borough council is refusing to do something about a matter which is for the county council.

A few years ago, Ken Thornber, then the leader of Hampshire County Council, came up with the "Hampshire Senate" idea. Currently, councils are unicameral - you elect councillors and they form the council's legislative arm. But what happens when you have a two-tier system?

OK, there will be people with dual mandates who will be elected to both lower- and upper-tier councils. But you still have 2 councils, whose decisions can impact on the other's, but with no formal legislative connection.

The Hampshire Senate idea was attempt to sort out this democratic deficit. Under it, Hampshire County Council would become bicameral, with an upper chamber being drawn from councillors from the lower-tier councils. From what I recall, each council would have the same number of representatives - the largest (Southampton) has about 21/2 the population of the smallest (Gosport).

And Southampton and Portsmouth would be included - which would have made their statuses as unitary authorities untenable long-term.

It has to be said that, at one level, this isn't highly original. The Labour Government at the time had introduced the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 (we would be covered by the South East England Development Agency), which allowed the Environment, Transport & Regional Affairs Secretary to declare that a suitable body could be the "regional chamber" for the development agency.

In our case, this was the South East England Regional Assembly, which had 111 members, 73 of whom would be drawn from councils in the region.

Hence the idea that local authorities would play a role in regional government was established. Allowing lower-tier authorities to be involved in upper-tier local government is simply an extension of that idea.

I now see that there may be a devolution of powers to Hampshire. My slight problem with this is that there needs to be a legislative body to handle the new powers, rather than a hotchpotch of local authorities - some unitary, one top-tier, some lower-tier. It strikes me that resurrecting the Hampshire Senate idea would go some way towards solving this problem - powers would be exercised by Hampshire County Council, but with unitary and lower-tier authorities having legislative input and exercising oversight via the Senate.

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