The UK's division of government powers and functions between the centre and local government has for decades been recognised as a major source of our inefficiency. Germany, where the massive powers reserved to the Lander have long been one of the reasons for its economic pre-eminence, is seen as the example to follow. France, despite its Napoleonic inheritance, has followed suit and devolved considerable powers to its regional governments and town councils.
Yet in Britain, despite the example of the late Victorian municipalities, and their impressive gas, sewage systems, concert halls and waterworks etc., the flow has been and continues to be, in the opposite direction
.Examples range from the serious reduction of local government fund-raising powers by Margaret Thatcher's "rate capping" measures in the 1980s to the trivialities which have emerged in recent weeks.
The Liberal Democrat-led South Cambridgeshire District Council decided to let its staff operate on a four-day week. No, said Whitehall: you can't do that. Sundry local councils have tried to make parts of their built-up environment safer and cleaner by establishing Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN's) and imposing 20mph speed limits. Rishi Sunak scents a possible electoral advantage in becoming the "motorists' friend" and is looking for ways to stop them.
And it's not just the Tories. London's Labour mayor, Sadiq Kahn, seeks to improve London's air quality by extending the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (Ulez) from which the more polluting vehicles are discouraged from entering by the imposition of an additional tax. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer hasn't the power to stop him, but urges him to "reflect." (Starmer does appear to have the power to veto candidates for election of whom he doesn't approve, not least the current directly elected North of Tyne mayor.)
What is desperately needed is a root and branch reform of our constitution, with powers beyond national defence, foreign policy, maintenance of the currency, the rule of law, basic liberties and human rights, and redistribution of taxation income from the richer to the poorer areas, taken away from Westminster and Whitehall and entrenched in national parliaments, regional assemblies and local councils.
The political climate is light years away from contemplating something on these lines at the moment. But if Labour forms the government after the next election without the need for Liberal Democrat and/or Nationalist and/or Green support, we shall simply get the mixture as before: probably only one term of the system run skewed more kindly towards to the "have-nots" (but not if they have more than two children) followed by yet another two of the Tories with it skewed towards the haves.