We must break the Power of Whitehall and Westmonster.


The people who prattle in this building and work in the Ministries that surround it control too much of our lives. Liverpool and the other major cities of England will never flourish until we break the power of Whitehall and Westminster

No that is not a spelling mistake (although I have been known to make a few!) That’s just the way that I increasingly see ‘London’ these days. All my long political life (51years and counting) I have seen bureaucrats in Whitehall and politicians in Westminster take crass policy decisions that affect Liverpool based not on our needs but on the needs of the London and South East voters who dominate political thinking.

I have been thinking about that for two reasons recently. Firstly, the fact that Esther McVey sees the need to spend £200,000+ on an examination of whether Universal Credit is hitting the poorest people in our community. I’m sorry Esther, that is just blindingly obvious. Get out of your ministerial limo; leave your wealthy constituency behind and spend a day incognito in the middle of any city and large town and you could see this for yourself.

The second reason is that the Lib Dem Conference agenda has just been published. We will be debating a motion supported by a policy paper that I have had a hand in creating. The motion is looking at the way that the UK is governed with a particular look at the way England is governed. It’s not that there is anything in the paper that I disagree with. It’s just that it’s all a bit anaemic. It’s just not angry enough about the Stalinist control that Westminster and Whitehall have over ‘the provinces’ which has choked the life and vitality out of our cities and encouraged our young people to head south because, “that’s where the jobs are”.

Arguably, England is the most centralised state in Western Europe. Bureaucrats in Whitehall and politicians in Westminster micro manage communities throughout the country. They do it by the creation of laws and Statutory Instruments and enforce their rule through a series of inspectorates and regionally based bureaucrats such as Children’s Commissioners.

  • Planning decisions made by people with local knowledge and a local mandate can be overturned by a bureaucrat based in Bristol.
  • There are regulations about bollards; parking fines and bus lanes
  • Central government decides how many houses we need to build to meet the needs of our communities.
  • Cabinet Ministers answer questions in the House of Commons about tiny matters.
  • Most parts of central government such as the Health Service have little local discretion to create local solutions with local partners to local needs but wait for direct instruction from central government.

This is rigorously enforced by the financial controls that Westminster imposes. The theory of localism and do what you think is right is supplanted by ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’.

Liberal Democrats think that this centralisation is wrong. Liberal Democrats believe that decisions over policies and spending should be made at the lowest possible level. These levels will be different for different types of activity.

I want to break the power of Westminster and Whitehall over issues of a domestic nature which should rightly be decided by those who have a clear understanding of the nature of problems and can devise local solutions.

The lowest level would be the neighbourhood perhaps 5,000 people

Then the district around 100,000 people

Then the Town or City – between 250,000 and 750,000 people

Then the County or Conurbation – between 750,000 and 2,500,000 people

Then the region which, following the devolved governmental system could be up to 5 million people.

Liberal Democrats recognise that this will mean systems that look different in different parts of the Country. This is right. The way you provide services in a heavily rural area should look very different to the way they are provided in a heavily urban area.

We do not propose elected bodies at all these levels unless there is a strong demand for them. Our key aim is to involve more people in the design and delivery of services and particularly to ensure that are able to influence the decision-making process. This can be achieved through a variety of structures working within differing democratic structures.

But where the motion and the paper both fall woefully short is in two key regards:

  1. It says little about taxation powers. We need at a much more local level to decide which taxes we need and which we don’t which would include specific taxes which are relevant to specific areas. As an example, I believe that Liverpool would benefit from a hotel bedroom tax. Liverpool spends a lot of money promoting our city and events in it. Of course, the private sector that benefit from this spend do contribute towards the costs.  They Business rates but this is nowhere near the cost of providing the additional services and promotions by which they can thrive. A bedroom tax of £2 for a night’s occupation would be easy to administer and would raise enough money to pay for all our promotion. Such a tax would be pointless in Knowsley!
  2. It doesn’t begin to define the things that ‘London’ should stop doing and leave to us. A good point here is the failure to mention the NHS. It pains me to say so but the Manchester devolution is going well. Money is being spent to meet local needs and priorities. Local decision making is beginning to ensure that the distinction between health and social care spending and services is becoming hard to spot. This means a much better service for those who rely heavily on both services. But the list should not end with health. There is no reason why all local transport decisions; training; economic development and employment initiatives; housing and the environment could not be made by people at the appropriate regional or local level in a democratic and transparent way.

The Lib Dem policy paper and motion hint at this but tease you into believing that this is a radical document whilst not really going far enough.

The key to local decision-making is to ensure that the right decision is made at the right level and the people. That will improve the quality of services; reduce the cost of services; ensure greater cooperation between service delivery agencies. Our mantra should be simple. If we want our regions to flourish we must break the power of Whitehall and Westminster”

A few years ago, the BBC did a survey which asked people which City was England’s second city. The Brummies said Birmingham; the Geordies said Newcastle and the Mancies said Manchester. The Scousers said London! Of course, we think this is the best city in the Country but we will never achieve our potential whilst London holds the powers and purse strings. Power to the People!


About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperson on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and four grandchildren.
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3 Responses to We must break the Power of Whitehall and Westmonster.

  1. Dorothy Thornhill says:

    Richard “ on the money “ as always ! I am only disappointed , but not surprised,, that you don’t see Elected Mayors as part of the solution in “Standing up to Whitehall and Westminster”. By having a legitimate mandate from the voters of a city to speak up for them rather than just from a ward and council group, they can be harder to ignore and produce a visiable, accountable counterweight to our centralised system. But from the viewpoint of opposition to a labour fiefdom in a wonderful city with a less than wonderful example of a Mayor I do know where you are coming from but let’s not forget many places have poor, nay dreadful, council leaders and get away with it precisely because they are invisible and unaccountable.

  2. bob says:

    So more local authority incompetants to be employed on the council tax payers money then?

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