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Chris Fox's Politics Section

My Views: Layers of Government

In the previous article, I supported democratic government. In this article, I will address the question of what layers of government we should have.

Government will exist at the nation state level anyway, although some parts of a country may be given autonomy. But what other layers could we have?

In England, at least, the most local layer of government has traditionally been based on the parish, the catchment area of a church. Given that religion is only one aspect of people's lives, and that politics and religion are two different subjects, is this valid? Would it not be more logical for each settlement to have its own council? Settlements are well defined, being separated from each other by open space (although such division is less clear in conurbations), and each has its own local scale facilities. Parishes and divisions of parishes could, however, be retained for the purpose of assigning isolated houses and farms to particular settlements.

After their own community, the settlement people visit most is probably the nearest town. They go there to do bulk shopping or for a short day out. This is reflected in the (larger) facilities present in towns, including supermarkets, specialist shops and cafes. I therefore recommend a layer of district councils, each district centred on a town. A city could constitute a district in itself, and could have community councils covering each of its neighbourhoods.

Between the district and nation state levels, I recommend that any area with a sense of collective identity be given its own authority: such a move would emphasise that identity. This would mean the second highest layer of government consisted of assemblies covering each of a country's major native cultural groups. In the United Kingdom, the assemblies in this layer would cover England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, although Cornwall may prefer to have an assembly separate from that of England (Ulster would be a better catchment area than Northern Ireland, but it is currently divided by a national border).

Within the British nations, the historic counties are valid cultural and geographical entities, and could therefore be used for another layer of government. In some cases, however, it may be impractical to use them for this purpose (although there is no reason why they cannot be used for other purposes). For example, London is a single city but is divided between four historic counties: Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey. One possible arrangement, similar to that enacted in 1965, is to give London its own county council, with the catchment areas of Essex, Kent and Surrey County Councils cut back accordingly and the remaining parts of Middlesex administered by neighbouring county councils; district councils could, as at present, cover London's boroughs.

For the regional layer, the boundaries of historical Anglo-Saxon (in England) and Celtic kingdoms could be used, although the boundaries would have to be adjusted where they cross those of nations or counties.

I have identified six possible layers of government. However, while having so many layers would reduce the workload of each layer, the overall cost of government would increase. It will therefore be asked whether some layers can be either merged or dropped. Under these proposals, the English counties of Kent, Sussex and possibly Cornwall would constitute regions in themselves. And the smaller counties could each consist of a single district; this arrangement currently applies to such counties as Fermanagh, Fife, Pembrokeshire and Rutland, with slight deviations from the historic boundaries in some cases. Some areas may drop the regional layer; others may prefer to have regional assemblies instead of being covered by those of their nations. It is, of course, for the people of each area to choose their layers of government.

After setting the layers of government, one will need to decide what issues should be handled by each layer. I will not go into detail on this point, but I believe issues should be handled at the most local practical level. This is for two reasons. Firstly, towards the local level fewer people are covered by each authority, which means each person has greater influence over policies. And secondly, decisions are best taken by the authority whose catchment area coincides with the area affected by those decisions: everyone on that authority knows the area and the effect of decisions on it, whereas most of those on a more remote authority would need to have this information given to them.

Another point is that powers held by an authority should apply across the whole of its catchment area, which means any powers devolved to a more local level should be devolved right across that catchment area. Otherwise, people in some areas will effectively have two votes on particular issues: one for their home area and another - at a higher level - for other areas. Note, however, that it does not follow that all the authorities in a particular layer must have exactly the same powers. If, for example, one county council devolved some powers to its districts while another did not, people in one county would still have no votes in the other.

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