Calls for more devolution powers

Government accused of going cold on deals

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The new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, should press ahead with further devolution in England, says the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee in a new report.

The committee calls on devolution to be extended not only to combined authorities and elected mayors but local government more widely, and to both rural and urban areas.

It says devolution should be the “default option” for government policies, and that the success of devolution depends on local authorities being able to raise new forms of finance rather than depending on council tax and business rates. These might include a local income tax or a tourism tax.

“Involve local people”

Devolution in England stalled after the introduction of an elected mayor for London in 2000 but picked up speed with the introduction of metro mayors and combined authorities for areas including Greater Manchester and Merseyside following the 2015 election. Mayors for South Yorkshire and, more recently, West Yorkshire followed.

Boris Johnson has indicated his support for further devolution, and has tied it to his levelling-up agenda to reduce regional economic inequalities. Cumbria, for example, is currently drawing up proposals for devolved authorities. But plans can get bogged down over ministerial demands for reorganisation of existing local authority structures and what critics say is an antipathy towards devolution from central government departments.

Clive Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield South East and chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, urged Gove to “vigorously drive forward devolution across England and help boost the provision of public services in cities and regions”.

He said: “Across Whitehall, government needs to be more positive and proactive in delivering devolution. On this path, the government should work with local government to produce a devolution framework in which devolution is the default option.

“Devolution also needs to involve local people. The local public should be consulted on whether devolution should include having a directly elected mayor.”

Shared Prosperity Fund

Existing mayors have a patchwork of powers that varies from area to area. Much of their power comes from exerting influence rather than the control of significant devolved funding. But some suspect ministers are reluctant to push further devolution after Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham went head to head with central government over lockdown measures last year.

Betts said: “Financial devolution is crucial to the future success of devolution. The government should examine the options for fiscal devolution, giving local authorities greater freedom and enabling them to be take longer-term decisions for their communities.”

The committee’s report, Progress on Devolution in England, also criticises the government for “an unacceptable delay” in explaining how the UK Shared Prosperity Fund will work. This will replace European Union structural funds, which brought significant investment to northern regions and are due to end in 2023.

The report advocates greater devolution of powers in policy areas including health, education and skills, housing and planning, and transport and infrastructure. Only Greater Manchester currently has some control over healthcare – and even that is limited.

Last week, Steve Reed, shadow communities secretary, accused the government of “going cold on devolution” and having a “centralising instinct”. Speaking to Local Government Chronicle, he said Johnson’s support for further devolution to counties was about “party political advantage”.

Reed said: “They’re structuring areas to have a mayor based on where they think they can construct a Conservative majority.”

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “We recognise the importance of devolving power and money away from Whitehall. Our devolution programme is one of the largest in recent decades, which includes the nine combined authority mayors deals.

“The government will publish a Levelling Up White Paper that will drive forward our central mission to level up every corner of the UK, setting out further details on future devolution and our plans for strengthening local accountable leadership.”

Photo: Betts – regions need autonomy (Lauren Hurley/PA)

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