WMN opinion: Rural areas must share in bid to devolve more power
Devolving power from the centre to the regions has been a pledge made by successive Governments, with only partial success. While Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all achieved a large degree of self rule that has transformed lives in each of those nations, the regions of England have fared less well. London and the South East continue to dominate economically and culturally while ministers pay mostly lip service to the idea of giving more autonomy to English regions.
That may be about to change, however. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg tells the Western Morning News today that a quiet revolution is under way with new powers available for peripheral regions of the country through both city deals – which will see Plymouth invited to bid for greater control of its own destiny – and a future deal for Cornwall likely to follow if the right ideas and the right sort of leadership are forthcoming. It all sounds extremely positive for a region like the Westcountry which has consistently been poorly served by successive centralist Governments which have failed to understand its unique problems or provide support for its unique opportunities.
We would urge caution, however. For one thing in the current plans there is an over-emphasis on cities. The Westcountry has consistently failed to get on the map for any sort of autonomy because it is seen in Westminster and Whitehall as lacking the critical mass to really make it on its own. Including Plymouth in the latest bid for city deal status is a help. But unless there is a recognition that the rest of Devon can also be trusted with running more of its own affairs there is a danger business growth in the rural Westcountry will be thwarted.
Congratulations to St Ives MP Andrew George, whose dossier "A Duchy Deal" apparently impressed his party leader. Now we need a similar approach in rural Devon which would lift the dead hand of Westminster and give the region as a whole direct access to the funding required to create jobs and wealth. Business leader Tim Jones is right to welcome the city deal and what it could for Plymouth. He is right too, to make it clear cities are not the only place to generate growth. And most of all, he is right to earnestly hope that this is one initiative that lives longer than the current Parliament.
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Survey after survey show us that our children are increasingly losing touch with rural life and rural issues. So the Countryside Alliance's call for schools to "adopt a hound" to help children learn more about hunting is commendable. Of course there is a political dimension to the initiative, just as there is a political dimension to efforts by so-called animal welfare charities to ban under-16s from buying magazines about country sports. The most important thing is that young people are encouraged to get out and about in the countryside and to understand it for themselves.