Bill McKenzie on why government plans to devolve power out of Whitehall don’t go far enough
With the first session of the new Parliament in full swing, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill will have its Second Reading in the Lords today. Described as the vehicle to facilitate the creation of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, the legislation contains enabling powers for government to devolve more powers locally than ever before. Plus allows for the election of ‘Metro Mayors’ to chair combined authorities and take over the role of police and crime commissioners.
Labour has long called for more devolution, for cities and counties across the UK. As such, and while we support this Bill, we are disappointed with the government’s piecemeal approach, focusing only on major cities and producing one-off deals at the behest of the Chancellor. Of course we support greater devolution to Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield, and the conurbations around them. But we want a powerhouse in every part of the country, and will seek assurances from Ministers that they will prioritise giving all areas an equal opportunity.
Similarly, the establishment of elected mayors as the point person for accountability should be a discretionary choice for local authorities. The Bill does not appear to make it a precondition for a combined authority to gain more powers; yet the rhetoric we have seen, particularly from George Osborne, suggests otherwise. Not all areas will feel that an elected mayor would be the best step for them to take, and this should not hinder applications for more powers from Whitehall.
In addition, whilst we applaud more decisions being taken locally, this cannot be done with deeper cuts to local government that would put many councils under increased pressure to stay above board. In the last Parliament, the Communities and Local Government department suffered a budget cut of 60%, and the new Secretary of State, Greg Clark must ensure greater fairness in any further cuts deemed necessary.
Devolution of more powers locally must go beyond transport, economic development and regeneration. The agenda is not new but we need to address the benefits in a more profound and sustained way. It has long been recognised that we have a high degree of centralisation in the UK and that this both stifles initiative and creativity, and holds back growth and regeneration. We must unleash the dynamic potential of our communities, and enable services to be better joined up and delivered on a more cost effective basis.
The Bill does not specify what can be devolved, allowing the Secretary of State and local authorities to come up with a unique agreement tailored to their own wants and needs. As advantageous as this ‘blank canvass’ approach seems, it could also be problematic to draw the net too wide; particularly when considering the transfer of functions. The benefits of integrated health and care services, for example, are widely recognised but we should be cautious about devolving the commissioning of some specialised services.
Labour will be looking to add safeguards to the Bill to ensure that the decentralisation of powers is not merely a symbolic gesture. But instead a practicable and meaningful transfer of authority for the purposes of creating a well-balanced society for all corners of our country.
Lord Bill McKenzie of Luton is Shadow Local Government Minister in the House of Lords
Published 8th June 2015