My piece before the Scottish Referendum on the complexities of a Federal UK did not even attempt to answer the “English Question”. The obvious reason for that is that I don’t have an answer to it! A few thoughts, however…
Firstly, in principle, I think there is little doubt that “English-only votes on English-only issues” is now an accepted principle. Labour was foolish initially to seek to deny this, for nakedly partisan reasons. However, as I noted (and others began to note on Referendum Night) this also requires an “English Executive”. It does mean that a UK General Election could see one Government returned at “Federal” level and another at “English” level. Frankly, so be it! (An alternative to this, of course, is that there should be no more UK General Elections – each country should have its own Legislative Elections and then appoint/elect a Federal Senate, perhaps to replace the House of Lords, from there. I don’t think this is a realistic proposition – England just doesn’t do change on that scale, and certainly not just to suit the remaining 15% of the population.)
Secondly, the obvious way to deal with the “English Question” is a set of Regional Assemblies. However, this has been tried. The eight English regions outside London did have Regional Assemblies for some time – by appointment (not unlike a Civic Forum). However, when the North East was offered the chance to elect its, it rejected it by 7 to 2. England just doesn’t really do regions – standing alone, it is the most densely populated country in Europe and, generally, it therefore looks to its cities for identity and attachment rather than regions (which the English often find a suspect “European” thing). This does not totally rule out a return to English regional devolution, but it does mean it would be in the face of the electorate’ own preference – it is not likely, therefore.
Thirdly, there is also the “London Question”. Should London (i.e. Greater London) become more like a “fifth federal unit” of the UK? In my own proposals, I left the option open. My instinct is to avoid that initially (see below).
Fourthly, there is no reason that “Greater City Regions” shouldn’t take on the precise same roles as the Mayor of London and Greater London Assembly in exactly the same way. All law-making powers for England would remain at Westminster; however, significant delegated policy-making authority, particularly in transport and planning (as well as health and welfare budgets), could be delegated to “City Region Authorities” (with areas falling outside those City Regions having their policies made by a specific Department for English Rural Affairs in Whitehall, or perhaps via conglomerations of rural/metropolitan councils). This could be tested in Greater Manchester, and then be put in place at the very least for Tyne & Wear (Newcastle-Sunderland), West Yorkshire (Leeds-Bradford), South Yorkshire (Sheffield-Rotherham-Doncaster), Humberside (Hull-Grimsby), Merseyside (Liverpool-Wirral), West Midlands (Birmingham and surrounding area), East Midlands Urban Area (Leicester-Nottingham-Derby), Avon (Bristol and surrounding area), Urban Hampshire (Southampton-Portsmouth) and perhaps West Sussex (around Brighton and Hove). Most of these already co-operate at local authority level, and could continue to do so. They would have the precise same powers as Greater London – this commonality would be important.
Fifthly, as a final point, there is the absolute potential for such City Regions to raise their own income taxes to pay for infrastructure, or to have borrowing powers.
In other words, some are focusing on English legislative and governance arrangements while others are focusing on devolving powers to English regions or cities. In fact, I think it is obvious both should be done.