I beg to move,
That this House has considered city regions and Metro Mayors.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I welcome the Minister to his post; I am sure that one of the joys he is looking forward to is responding to endless Adjournment debates.
This debate has excited a certain amount of interest; it is somewhat topical. We have a new Government with a newish agenda, two key themes of which I am personally keen on. One is devolution and the other is the northern powerhouse, both of which I support in principle. For England, we are largely talking about devolution to city regions, but it is wholly unclear, as many hon. Members have already said in the Commons Chamber, what will happen to areas outside city regions.
I understand city regions, because they are essentially the rediscovery of what we used to call metropolitan counties, which were abolished as collateral damage when Mrs Thatcher got rid of the Greater London Council. She was so antagonised by signs across the road from County Hall that she decided it had to go, and to make it not seem personal and vindictive she got rid of the metropolitan counties as well, just to prove the point. There has always been a necessity for sub-regional bodies of one kind or another, which was proved by the need to recreate the GLC as the Greater London Authority, with an associated Mayor’s office. It was also proved by the fact that the met counties more or less persisted in one form or another. They persisted in most areas as four joint boards or authorities dealing with police, fire, transport and waste.
That is what Mrs Thatcher did. What we are seeing now is almost a reversal of Thatcherism—the Minister may not be comfortable with that, but that is what is happening. Police authorities, which Mrs Thatcher and the Conservatives who followed her tried insistently to depoliticise by adding to them cohorts of magistrates, independents and so on, have now become politically accountable police and crime commissioners—I am not particularly fond of that proposal, but nonetheless it is a politicisation. There is a promise of a devolution of power from Whitehall to what we have learned to call our combined authorities, which have essentially replaced the joint boards and the met counties before them. The only real difference is that they are indirectly nominated rather than directly elected.
Governments are often trapped into having to reinvent the wheel. There is always a need for a sub-regional structure to make the big economic and transport decisions that are beyond the individual competence of even a sizeable council. Governments have also learned that those kinds of decisions cannot be made well or to local satisfaction by Whitehall.
What is odd about the Government’s proposals is their insistence that this sort of devolution requires something called a Metro Mayor—a Mr Big or a kind of civic Mussolini—which is different from having an effective council leader or a figurehead, for which many people see the need in certain areas or for certain purposes. It is essentially the appropriation of executive power to one individual.
There is a great deal of confusion about the real shape of the metropolitan areas and the Metro Mayors. Has the hon. Gentleman seen the research that suggests that the emphasis on big cities such as Leeds or Manchester will squeeze and have a deleterious effect on smaller towns and cities, such as my town of Huddersfield?
I will come to that point later, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
The interesting thing is that this is the sort of devolution that people have requested and want. There is clamour up and down the northern cities and conurbations—people are saying, “Let’s have a Metro Mayor.” But it is a Government-knows-best, Procrustean model. The Chancellor has been explicit that proper, full devolution—devolution that is worth anything—will be on that model. If I were being unkind, I could accuse the Government of dogmatism, ideological stupidity, blind prejudice or even a predilection for civic Mussolinis, but I am genuinely struggling to follow their argument. There is no evidence from anywhere in the world that conurbations with all-powerful mayors thrive any better or any worse than those that do not. Some clearly do, but a lot do not; governance is not always a decisive factor. There is no evidence that one man alone always makes a better decision than a leader surrounded by his peers or a group of adequately informed, able people.
There is an appreciable body of evidence that shows that systems that invest power in a single decision-maker are vulnerable to a number of things. They are vulnerable to cronyism—that kind of accusation has been made against the Mayor of London. They are vulnerable, in the long term, to an element of corruption, as decisions become less transparent, and to political obtuseness and people flying a kite—I am thinking of things such as Boris’s island airport. Collective decisions, rather than individual decisions, are always more transparent and more open to challenge, because they have to be argued for. They are not always quicker, which may be why the Government are infatuated with the Metro Mayor idea, but if corporate bodies are required to make quick decisions, most can think of an intelligent scheme of delegation that enables them to deal with the particular problem. Few people would argue that a President of the United States, surrounded by advisers, perforce and naturally makes better decisions than a Prime Minister of England, who has a Cabinet and has to get things through Parliament.
In Merseyside, we have a particular problem. From our point of view, it is essential that decisions that affect the whole region have proper input from all parts of the region. All voices—those of Southport, Sefton, the Wirral and St Helens—should be heard. It is not simply all about Liverpool. One person, however good, qualified and sensitive they are, is unlikely to be equally alert and caring or equally bothered about all areas.
In my area—right on the margins of the Liverpool city region—we worry about marginalisation. We are already in a borough that is controlled by no one elected by Southport or who belongs to a party that has been elected in Southport. There is genuine unhappiness about being in the council we are in, and we will make representations later in the Parliament about boundary changes. But how much worse will it be for my constituency when not even a Sefton voice is involved in the decisions that directly affect us? We will become a marginalised community.
Our tourism, for example, could be overlooked in Liverpool’s drive to boost its own tourist economy. There does not seem to be an adequate restraint on that. Following on from the intervention of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), what we want is a better engagement with the areas immediately outside the city region. It is important to us to find out what is going to happen in our neighbouring authority, west Lancashire—a district highly dependent on the city region economy, but exiled from it, no part of it and not able to join it. We need to talk about transport links with west Lancashire, and it is not obvious that having a Metro Mayor would be of any assistance to us.
The situation genuinely would not be so bad if, as in the ResPublica pamphlet, which backed the proposal of “Devo Manc”, the prospect of a Metro Mayor was presented as an option—as something in the toolkit. But it is not; it is a precondition, regardless of local opinion. It is not devolution by demand, but almost devolution as the Chancellor demands. To that extent, it has to be questioned.
I do not think these problems are unique to the area of Merseyside, or even just to Merseyside, Manchester and the north-west. The same issues can be found in Tyneside, the Sheffield area and Birmingham. The fact that Manchester has been such a success recently in terms of its devolution—it was picked as an early candidate for devolution without a Metro Mayor—proves how tangential the presence of a Metro Mayor is to genuine devolution.
Let me conclude by summarising the problem. We want devolution, just like the Scots—it would be nice, of course, to have the same level of per capita funding—but the Government’s offer, as it is at the moment, is simply piecemeal. We are leaving many areas completely orphaned. We are patronising other areas by suggesting that they can only have one particular form of governance, regardless of what the electorate actually wants, otherwise they will not get the funding that devolved areas will have. We are marginalising communities, such as mine of Southport, within the city region, and we are confronted with a wholly unproven, unevidenced strategy.
The worst thing is that there is absolutely no opportunity for the people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this devolution to have or express a view on the template that the Government offer them. That is not devolution; it is imposition.
To help the Chamber, I should say that the new arrangements for sittings in Westminster Hall are as follows: this debate finishes at 5.30 pm, and the Scottish National party, Labour and Government Front Benchers each get seven minutes at the end of the debate. As colleagues can see, there is very little time to be shared between 13 people. I am very happy to call everyone, but they will have only three or four minutes to speak, so I ask colleagues to bear that in mind. Whether they want only to make interventions is entirely a matter for the Chamber.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this important debate, which is not only about city regions and Metro Mayors, but, as he ably put it in his speech, about where devolution is ultimately leading us.
Devolving the decision-making process closer to communities and tackling our nation’s historic north-south divide head on make perfect sense as principles. Empowering the north to achieve its true potential will ensure that we do not surrender to the unyielding rise of London. I say that because rather than dragging our capital down, we should instead empower the rest of the country to rise to the challenge.
Britain is at its best when all our cities and regions have the freedom to champion their unique strengths in order to generate more highly skilled jobs and greater prosperity. Clearly, it would be a mistake to restrict the offer of greater powers to a small, elite club of metropolitan centres. Every region of the country must be free to seize the opportunity of controlling its own destiny. That is the only way in which devolution can be truly successful.
I am therefore delighted that the proposals for devolution, as we see them at the moment, will now be considered much more widely, regardless of where they come from. For me, the essence of Conservative philosophy is that it is not where someone comes from that matters, but where they are going and what they can achieve in life. That is ultimately where the devolution argument has to lie.
After the excellent contribution by the hon. Member for Southport, I would like to take this discussion across the Pennines and focus attention on the impact of the devolution debate on the great county of Yorkshire and my city of York. As the historic heart of Yorkshire, the city of York is uniquely placed to benefit from the Government’s offer of devolution. We are fortunate enough to benefit from the membership of two local enterprise partnerships, and we are strategically linked not only with the economies of west Yorkshire, but with the more rural hinterland of North Yorkshire and the East Riding.
Although it is true that parts of our economy are intertwined with west Yorkshire, our connections with the rest of North Yorkshire run far deeper. We share many of the essential services with North Yorkshire, and our proud heritage as the northern capital of both the Romans and the Vikings—as the city of York—provides us with a more intangible connection with the rest of the county.
I remember when the proposals for combined authorities were first mooted and first debated in the House. I, along with many other colleagues, voiced my concern about the lack of alternatives for places such as York to take a different path from the one proposed for major cities. I am delighted that the Government look set to deliver on this key commitment and I sincerely hope that York will be able to achieve its ambition of working closely with its long-established partners, such as North Yorkshire and the East Riding, to deliver greater benefits for our local communities.
The importance of York, North Yorkshire and the East Riding as a valuable counterweight to the competing interests of Leeds, Sheffield and Hull must not be overlooked. The new Conservative-led City of York Council, which has a Conservative leader for the first time since the authority was created over 20 years ago, has a great opportunity to make devolution work for our society and truly unlock York’s potential.
It has been made abundantly clear that the only way in which we can achieve a Yorkshire powerhouse and make sure that devolution percolates right the way through our great county is to dissolve the responsibilities for investment in our transport infrastructure. On transport infrastructure and the need for investment, we can look no further than the northern ring road in my constituency. It provides the main access to key retail and employment and leisure sites. However, as the numbers of vehicles using that particular road have increased by more than half over the past decade, large stretches of the route are now at full capacity. Without further investment, journeys that take 20 minutes today will take over an hour in 2020, so devolving transport funds to York would provide the ancient city with the tools that it needs for a modern transport infrastructure that fits the demands of the 21st century.
I will just touch on this next point, because I know that other people want to come in. If we are really going to put wings under our devolution project, we must also devolve funding for our local airports. As many Yorkshire colleagues will agree, it is essential that access to Leeds Bradford airport—one of the fastest growing airports in the country—is greatly improved. We have to get rail links in there and not just road links, as we have at the moment. Again, devolution can really put the wings under that airport and move it forward, so to speak. As such, we need that long-term approach to funding, with a dedicated rail link into the airport.
Clearly, the possibilities offered by devolution really have the potential to be transformative, not only for many of our cities, but for our rural communities. However, we must make sure that it percolates right the way through, across our great country, empowering rural communities and cities such as York, leaving nowhere behind. It must not just be about the metropolitan centres.
I entirely agree. As I was saying, if devolution is to work, we must ensure that it percolates right the way through, leaving no area or community unaffected. We must ensure that it gets right across the country, into our rural communities, and is not something just for the metropolitan elite, as we see it at the moment.
My hon. Friend is talking about devolution and has mentioned rural communities. I agree about that; I come from a rural community. But how does that link to the Metro Mayors concept? Is the Metro Mayors concept as appropriate to somewhere such as Oxfordshire as it is to somewhere such as York?
As I have said, if devolution is to work across the country and we are not to end up leaving communities behind and widening the divide between metropolitan centres and our rural communities, we must ensure that that link does work. I look forward to what my hon. Friend the Minister will say on that. I am sure that he will come up with many arguments as to why rural communities should be reconnected. I know that that will affect his constituency and the north as much as it affects mine and the great county of Yorkshire.
While we are talking about Yorkshire and the city of York, I should say that if the rural communities that surround York are to play that leading role in devolution, we must ensure that it gets right to the heart of them. If we can achieve that, we can ensure that all communities play a leading role in what I would argue delivers for my area a Yorkshire powerhouse to rival that of Manchester and London.
It is a pleasure to see you back in your place after the election, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) for securing this important debate. I also welcome the Minister, a constituency neighbour, to his place on the Front Bench. I hope that he will be working in the interests of Teesside and the wider north-east. This debate is a good opportunity to start probing the Minister on what he will do for our area.
In the short time available, I want to make four points. First and foremost, and as the hon. Member for Southport established in the course of his excellent opening to the debate, the Government are trying to show their enthusiasm for devolution and letting go of power to local areas by insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach to governance. Areas can have further devolution, but only if they adopt the Government’s way. That seems a pretty odd way of devolving power to local areas in order to ensure that local wishes and circumstances prevail. If devolution is properly chosen by the Government, how on earth can the Minister justify that?
Following on from that, my second point is that the Government, in adopting this approach, are disregarding in a very significant way the wishes of local people. It seems a fundamental principle of British politics that if there is a significant change in the model by which people are governed, the people affected should be allowed a say. Indeed, the House is at this very moment debating the Second Reading of the European Union Referendum Bill.
The principle has been true at national level, with the referendum in 2011 to change the parliamentary electoral system. It has been true at regional level, such as with the referendum in 2004 in my own region of the north-east to determine whether we would have a regional assembly. Significantly, it has also been true at local level in my own constituency. In 2001, the electorate of Hartlepool decided in a referendum that they wanted a mayoral system of governance at local level—and they elected a monkey. In 2012, after a decade of a directly elected mayor, the good people of Hartlepool decided in another referendum that they had had enough of that and rejected the model. Given that my constituents, in recent years, have had their say on which local models of governance they prefer, and given in particular their rejection of a mayoral model, why are their views so obviously ignored by the Government?
My third point is about something that was raised eloquently by the hon. Member for Southport. Much of the economic drive in future decades will be fuelled by cities, but by no means all of it. In my own area of the north-east, Newcastle is a superb city. I used to work there and my eldest son is at university there. I want to see Newcastle thrive and it is in the region’s interests for it to thrive. But I can see my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) at the debate. What about Sunderland and Nissan? What about somewhere closer to home—the Teesside area and the great manufacturing firms there? City regions will not be the sole drivers. What will the Minister do to ensure that smaller towns and cities, such as Hartlepool and Stockton, are able to benefit? That is incredibly important.
Can the Minister confirm that the combined authority for Teesside is working well? Those local authorities are working adequately together and can work together; there is no need for a change in governance, so can he discount here and now a Metro Mayor for Tees Valley?
My fourth and final point relates to the matters that could be devolved. I would wish to see economic development, regeneration, skills and transport devolved, but I would also hope to see health matters devolved properly. My constituents and I want to see hospital services return to Hartlepool—the Minister will know about this issue all too well—but my constituents feel powerless to ensure that that happens. Surely real devolution allows local people to feel empowered.
Of course clinical safety has to be paramount and medical advice has to be prioritised, but decisions on hospital services are made by the NHS foundation trusts that do not have the support of the local population. Hartlepool Borough Council, regardless of political affiliation, is against the changes. I want to see hospital services return to Hartlepool, but there is a lack of real devolution, power and accountability at local level. The people of Hartlepool do not feel that they are being listened to. If we are to have real devolution and accountability, that should always include public services vital to the people of an area, and there is no bigger such public service than the NHS, so will the Minister say something about how local people can have a real say about this?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That integration—ensuring that local authorities are working in conjunction with different parts of the NHS, which are often very silo-like in approach—is the key to ensuring that my constituency, as well as his own, gets the best possible health and social care.
I shall summarise by saying that the people in my area would like more power over their future and their destiny, but the model proposed by the Government is rigid and fixed according to their own agenda rather than that of local areas. The Minister knows our part of the world incredibly well. I hope that he will show some flexibility in allowing proper devolution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) for securing the debate. I will try to be brief, because I agree with an awful lot of what my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) said, particularly his references to the great county of Yorkshire, but I do want to talk about devolution in the Humber and our concerns about how that may go.
I start by expressing my support for the Government’s agenda to devolve more powers. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is shocked that I am supporting the Government line, but this is a new Parliament and we are all ambitious! I spent 10 years as a local councillor in the Humber, on Hull City Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who was sitting next to me until a moment ago, spent 26 years on the council in north-east Lincolnshire, or the precursor to that council. Our experiences as local councillors during that period were, under any Government, of centralisation of power to Westminster and a lack of trust between central Government and local government. If something did come out to local government—an extra power or funding—it always came with strings attached; we were told how to spend the money.
Inevitably, the money ran out at some point, but we still had to continue doing whatever it was, so I pay tribute to this Government for being the first in a long time at least to talk about devolving powers and taking them away from Westminster. For me, a proud Englishman as well as a Yorkshireman, the current structures will never work. As someone who believes in a federal Britain, I do not believe that we can ever right the constitutional settlement that we have, given the powers that the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly have.
I echo the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer about regional airports. Although the Scotland Bill is going through the House and we will be voting on that—the Committee stage is on Monday—it is a concern that air passenger duty, for example, will be devolved to Scotland. For airports in the north of England, there is a real risk there. Although devolution to local government along the proposed structures is to be welcomed, it will not, in my view, right the constitutional settlement that the Scotland Bill will make a lot worse for constituents in England. That is a debate for elsewhere, however.
I agree with the comments made about not trying to be too prescriptive. I noted the surprise expressed by the hon. Member for Southport and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer about the idea that central Government might demand something fixed and rigid. That should not be a shock to anybody who has been here or in local government; it is generally the way of things.
I concur with what has been said, however. We do not want a solution to be imposed on the Humber. I represent an area served by three local enterprise partnerships, which are all doing different jobs but doing them very well. We do not want the return of Humberside, and we do not want a Metro Mayor for the great city of Hull. Hull is a fantastic city, which is going to be UK city of culture in 2017 and which is really important to our region, but my constituents in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in Goole and on the south bank of the Humber in north Lincolnshire do not want to be part of a governance structure with Humberside. I believe that the Government’s position is that nothing will be imposed against the will of the people. That will be reassuring to my constituents, who are very concerned about the idea that anybody might try to recreate Humberside.
Finally—I am trying to keep within three or four minutes—if local authorities come forward with radical and innovative solutions, I would like two assurances from the Minister. First, I would like an assurance that regional boundaries would not be a barrier to such solutions. I represent north Lincolnshire, which is in the Yorkshire and the Humber region, but which sees itself as part of Lincolnshire because it is, of course, part of that great county. If north Lincolnshire wishes to pair with any of the district authorities to the south, which are in a different region—they are technically in the east midlands, although in north Lincolnshire we have far more in common with Lincolnshire than we do with west Yorkshire or even York—regional barriers must not be a barrier to its doing so.
Secondly, if unitary authorities want to work with district councils in places where there are also county councils, which is the situation in Lincolnshire—in north Lincolnshire we are a unitary authority, but Lincolnshire proper still has a district and county model—there may be a problem if district councils agree to the structures but county councils do not. Although I understand the desire for us to proceed on the basis of agreement, district and county councils have a history of disagreeing with each other on pretty much everything. I hope that the Minister will tell me that if a district council wishes to partner with a unitary authority, the county council will not have an absolute veto on that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) for securing the debate. I am wholly in favour of devolution, but I would like to quote Charles Kennedy, who got it exactly right when he said:
“I want to see far more decisions taken far closer to the patients, the passengers and the pupils. Far more power for locally and regionally elected politicians who understand best the needs of their areas.”
I could not have put it better myself. He was a very wise gentleman who will certainly be missed.
One of the key issues about devolution is funding. During the past five years under the previous Government, finance to local government was reduced by some 37%. If that is the way that this Government will go, passing powers down through Bills but cutting the funding, that is wholly unacceptable. We have to give localities the power to collect the money that they require.
Having said that, I support and welcome the extra powers in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, and I welcome what the legislation could provide to Greater Manchester. I add a note of caution—this has been touched on already—about the focus being too much on cities rather than smaller towns. Rochdale, for example, is on the periphery of Manchester, and there are some disadvantages attached to that, although the city of Manchester serves Rochdale well. The Bill must ensure that the powers that are passed down give equal weight to the peripheral towns, not only in Greater Manchester but in south Lancashire and east Lancashire. That is worth bearing in mind, because there are inequalities not only between regions—those are fairly obvious—but between sub-regions within the regions. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Southport, I am in favour of directly elected Metro Mayors. I believe that they provide greater accountability, more decisive action and a visible local champion whom the people can get behind and support.
Finally, a number of good people are coming forward in Greater Manchester hoping to be the Metro Mayor for the city region. I advise hon. Members who would like a flutter that I am 20:1 and my good wife Karen is 33:1. I will not comment on who is the better bet.
First, I want to recognise and welcome what the Government are doing. I believe that the proposal is a recognition of the failure of more than 70 years of centralisation. It may not be completely perfect—there may be warts on it and difficulties with it—but it is the first real reversal in England of centralisation since the second world war, and as such, it is to be welcomed.
Secondly, regarding some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) and others, it is very easy to find the faults in the proposal. It is easy to argue about boundaries or about consistency between different areas, and to say that the shires will not do as well as the cities. One problem that has bedevilled those of us who have argued for decentralisation—in my case, over the past third of a century—is the fact that nobody can agree on boundaries or on a consistent view. Cornwall is very different from Kent, which is very different from Manchester, which is very different from Birmingham. Each area has to argue the case for what is appropriate for Cheshire or for Kent, rather than looking to central Government to impose a uniform system across the whole country. That is what devolution should mean. If we try, as in the early ’70s, to find a completely homogeneous system, we will end up with no change whatsoever.
Thirdly, I want to make a point about the municipal Mussolinis that the hon. Member for Southport mentioned. His argument was deficient, quite frankly. He said that there was no empirical basis for the proposal. The difference between this country and the democracies in Europe and north America is that all those democracies, in essence, have elected mayors under the strong mayor model, the weak mayor model or variations of those models. We may be talking about mayors of tiny villages that nobody has ever heard of in the middle of France, but the mayoral model is well understood and there is a huge empirical basis for it. Those who argue against the mayoral model must respond to this point: I do not think that there is any empirical basis for saying that the system of local government that has grown up in this country, which was originally based on committees and elected leaders and which now has scrutiny committees and executive members, is better than elected mayors.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) that a mayoral system has the fundamental democratic advantages of transparency and accountability. In London, for example, people know who is responsible for transport in the city—it is the Mayor—but they often do not know who is their local councillor or the local leader of the council, who is elected under secondary legislation. If democracy means anything, it means that people understand who takes decisions on their behalf because that individual is elected, and that people can throw that individual out if they do not like them. If that is the case, I think that the mayoral model works well.
There is a huge amount to be said about the matter. As a Greater Manchester Member of Parliament, I welcome the proposals for Greater Manchester. Having looked at the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, I believe that there are still areas of it that need improvement and clarification. I do not see why the Deputy Mayor should have to be the leader of a council, and why they cannot come from a different sector altogether, as they do in London. That restriction is unnecessary. Why is it necessary to have a separate Bill to transfer transport powers so that we can re-regulate the buses in Greater Manchester? I worry about that, and I want to see what will be in that Bill to ensure that we get a good deal. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) that the bonus of devolution is that we could integrate healthcare and social care so that we can take decisions on hospitals and the rest of healthcare locally, preferably by this method. Overall, the Government are on the right track, but there is some detail to get right. The proposal is welcome.
Time is short, so I will try to get through my remarks as quickly as possible. There is huge potential in the north-east for economic growth, but if the past five years have taught us anything, it is that our region is experiencing disproportionate funding cuts. We need a fairer deal from the Government this time around. Any talk of regional devolution has to go hand in hand with action to address that unfair funding imbalance.
Although I welcome the Chancellor’s belated recognition that the north does not end at Manchester or Leeds by incorporating the north-east in his plans, his proposed settlement on devolution for our region is deeply flawed. Devolution should mean empowering local regions to decide how best to spend their resources in order to nurture economic growth. Indeed, he has promised to give local authorities the levers they need to grow their local economy and ensure that local people keep the rewards, but under his current proposals only areas with a directly elected mayor will be given such levers. Devolution by diktat seems a strange form of empowerment to me.
The Government may believe that directly elected mayors represent the best means of ensuring accountability on devolved decision making, but Ministers have yet fully to make the case for why they believe that to be true. I am sceptical about whether local voters will agree with them. People in the north-east should be given the opportunity to make that decision for themselves. Forcing them to accept devolution on the Government’s terms is not devolution at all.
Sunderland and Newcastle have previously rejected directly elected Mayors in referendums. The 2004 regional assembly referendum was very clear. If that opposition remains, why should the north-east and the communities I represent be denied the benefits that devolution will bring, especially as the North East combined authority has made significant progress in a short space of time, not least on local transport matters? Plans to re-regulate local buses are under way through the quality contract scheme, a change for which I have long campaigned and that I have long supported.
I welcome the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) to his new role, and I am pleased that he, at least, has recognised that a one-size-fits-all approach to the devolution of regional powers is flawed. But if, as he says, the so-called northern powerhouse is not a proposal to force a uniform model on everyone, why has the Chancellor gone on the record as saying that he will settle for nothing less than elected mayors? Which is it? If the Government are serious about creating an economic powerhouse that encapsulates all of the north, local people must be given freedom to determine their own destiny, free from prescription or interference from Whitehall. The Government’s proposals, in their current form, will deny the people of the north-east that opportunity.
I have listened to this debate with great interest more as an observer than as someone who seeks to impose their views. As a Scottish National party Member, and as a former local councillor, I think it is important that local areas take decisions for themselves because they understand what best suits their needs. The debate on city deals for England is interesting because we have a city deal in Scotland. The area I represent has a partnership of eight local authorities covering Glasgow and the surrounding areas, but a mayor has not been imposed because it is not part of the Scottish local government tradition to have an elected mayor. Indeed, in Glasgow we have a political head, the leader of the council, and a civic head, the Lord Provost. Those two roles are separate and understood. I can see the point of conflict between urban areas, which may suit a mayor, and rural areas that, for different reasons, may not.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of this debate because we have diverse areas in Scotland, too. Our 32 local authorities include the city of Glasgow with a population of some 600,000 and Clackmannanshire with a population of only around 50,000, but both local authorities are set up in broadly the same way. Devolution is working well in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament’s powers have been used to address local demands and to set a separate course for Scotland where we think things can be done in a particularly Scottish way for the benefit of our people. I will watch this debate with great interest. Much detail is still to appear, but we agree that, if the Government are giving powers to local areas, finance ought to be provided, too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this important debate.
I make it clear that Labour supports devolution to cities, counties and communities in every part of the United Kingdom for a simple reason: decisions are better if they are taken closer to the people they affect. In the past, Governments of every political colour have been too centralising, which is one reason why people have lost trust in politics. Power feels too remote, too unaccountable and too disconnected from people’s everyday lives and everyday concerns. The time has come to get power out of Whitehall and into the hands of people across the country.
The previous coalition Government claimed to be localist, but the evidence tells a different story, and I speak as someone who led a reasonably high-profile council until I was elected to this place in December 2012. Education was centralised in Whitehall, with civil servants and national Ministers taking decisions about where schools would be built and who would run them. There was little, if any, engagement with parents, local communities or local government and, as a result, mistakes were made. The Government told councils how and when they should empty bins, how they could communicate with local residents and how much council tax they could charge. They told councils what level of financial reserves they should hold to cover known risks, and then they denounced those councils for not spending the same money on the day-to-day services that they had to operate. I even received a letter from a Minister telling me how and where the council should organise street parties.
Now we have a new Government also claiming that they will devolve and decentralise. That sounds good, but the omens are less good. We have just had our first sight of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which does not include any proposals for devolving specific powers. Devolution must be on offer to every part of the country and should benefit every city region, not just Greater Manchester. Devolution should benefit towns and county regions, too, not just our major urban areas. And devolution should not stop at the town hall. Tenants need more control over the homes they rent. Patients need more control over the health and care services they use. Parents need more control over the schools their children attend. Unemployed people need more control over the support on offer to help them get back to work. Devolution should be about handing power to the people.
Fundamentally, devolution cannot work without a fair funding settlement or longer-term funding deals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) said, the areas that are being identified for devolution are those that have suffered the greatest cuts. Areas are being set up to fail, which feeds my concern, shared by many others, that the primary thing the Government want to localise is the blame for cuts they have made in Whitehall. Perhaps the starkest contradiction of all is that devolution is on offer only if it comes with an elected mayor. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said:
“I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”
Surely localism means trusting local people to take decisions for themselves, rather than having to rely on the occupant of No. 11 Downing Street.
Why do the Government feel that devolution needs to be accompanied by a mayor? Does the Minister not think that combined authorities are capable of finding a model of governance that is acceptable to the people they represent? Why are the Government choosing to propose only one model with a “take it or leave it” offer designed in Whitehall? There is nothing localist about doing it that way. Labour wants much more devolution and decentralisation, and Labour-run cities are at the forefront of the devolution agenda. Combined authorities need a wide range of powers to create jobs, build homes, keep communities healthy and provide support to those who need it most, but there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. That does not work, and the Government should not be putting barriers in the way of parts of the country that want more devolution.
Why do the Government not give local people a choice? They cannot end the culture of “Whitehall knows best” by letting Whitehall override the preferences of areas that want more devolution but also want to choose how they are governed. Why are the Government denying local areas that choice? I hope that the Minister will tell us that he is ready to think again.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that local people should be involved in devolution and the right to take powers. At present, if they want to have a referendum and elect a mayor locally, 5% of the population must sign a petition. Would he be agreeable to reducing that to 1% or 2%, given that he wants local people to make decisions?
My view of localism is that we must allow more such decisions to be taken by local authorities or local combined authorities in the areas that they seek to represent. The key point is that the Minister should not determine such things on behalf of those people. He cannot claim to be localist while imposing decisions on local communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing a debate that is clearly of such interest to colleagues of all parties. Members have raised a range of issues, many of which are fundamental to how the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill will work and many of which feed directly into hon. Members’ understandable concerns in the early stages of this debate. I hope that I can address most of those concerns in my comments.
The hon. Member for Southport accused me of the reversal of Thatcherism and the re-creation of metropolitan counties. I am not often accused of such things, nor did I expect to be accused of them on my first appearance as a Minister in a Conservative majority Government; I am sure that he will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree. We are not re-creating the metropolitan counties. They were large, cumbersome organisations with layers of bureaucracy that often conflicted with themselves. Instead, we are seeking to do what we can to transfer powers down to people sensibly and efficiently, and to build on combined authorities by empowering them to make decisions more locally and quickly and tailor those decisions to the needs of the communities that they serve. We have been accused of wanting to create Metro Mussolinis. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The hon. Member for Southport mentioned uniformity of approach—the Procrustean approach to devolving powers. Again, that is not the Government’s intention, nor is it contained in the legislation that we hope to introduce. We are seeking bespoke deals. We are saying to local areas, “Tell us what works for you. Tell us what geographic area works for you and what powers work for you. Come to the Government and make a deal with us that will help you grow your local economy, deliver better services for local people and, fundamentally, play a part in the northern powerhouse project that this Government are introducing to rebalance our economy so that the north of England can grow at the rate it should be able to expect, and so that the success enjoyed by London and the south over many years can be replicated across the country as a whole.”
Will the Minister comment on the feeling in the midlands that we are somewhat left out by the talk of a northern powerhouse? We are home to 10 million people, and we are the beating heart of manufacturing. Does he understand that there is some concern that we do not appear to be maximising ministerial favour and interest, given all this talk of the north versus the south?
The talk is not of the north versus the south; it is about how the rest of the country can catch up with some of the successes realised in the south not just recently but over many years. The midlands have just as important a role to play in that process. The Chancellor was in the midlands not long ago, talking about the midlands engine and what we can deliver there. Devolution can work for the midlands just as it can for the north. The majority of comments in this debate have been from Members for northern constituencies, but by no means does that mean that the Bill will apply only to those areas; it will provide opportunities to the country as a whole.
I want to address the accusation of uniformity of approach and prescription. That is not what the Bill will do; it is not what the Government are proposing. We propose to go to each area and find out what will work for that area. The legislation that we want to introduce is enabling legislation: it will allow different, tailored approaches to be delivered where they are needed, and in ways that have local agreement.
Members have raised concerns about the Metro Mayor model. It has been asked why the Government have been clear that we want to require the Metro Mayor as part of the devolution package for some city areas. If areas want the big devolution deal that places such as Manchester are getting, it is absolutely true that a Metro Mayor is a Government requirement as part of that package. The legislation enables but does not require that to happen. That is because we are talking about a wholesale transfer of powers, right down to a much more local level, in a way that has not been done by Government in this country for generations. We have seen power move away from local communities under successive Governments of different party political colours, and we want to reverse that trend. We want to say, “What can you do better locally, what do you need and what can we deliver for you?” With that, however, there must be accountability and responsibility. The mayoral model has been shown to work all over the world, and a directly elected and accountable individual is an important part of that model.
Can the Minister clarify something? Regarding the north-east, where we already have a combined authority, will devolution of further powers be conditional on a Metro Mayor? I am a bit unclear. On the one hand, he says that it is not a one-size-fits-all approach; on the other hand, he says, “It is, because you must have a Metro Mayor.”
I am happy to clarify matters to the hon. Lady to the extent that I can, because it depends on what the areas that want to take part in the devolution process want to get from it. If they want the Manchester model—the exciting package of powers that we are already delivering to the Greater Manchester area—a mayor will be a requirement of it. We in the Government believe that that needs to happen, and we will insist on it. If they want something less, then we can have a discussion about what that might look like. But yes, fundamentally, if areas want to push ahead with the sort of devolution package that areas such as Greater Manchester are already in line to get, a mayor will be a requirement of that process or will be part of that deal.
The Minister has repeated some of the mantras that I think we have heard before on this subject. However, what I genuinely want to know is this: why is that impossible in the Government’s mind? It must be impossible for there to be a prescription; if the Government are insisting on a Metro Mayor, that means they do not think that other things will work. Why is it impossible to give a level of devolution to a combined authority similar to that on offer in Manchester? What capacity does a combined authority lack that a Metro Mayor has?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises that combined authorities are made up of individuals who, while they are elected in their own respective local authority area, are not directly elected by the totality of the people they are there to serve. It is that democratic accountability that we are trying to deliver with this model and prescribing.
The answer to that argument is that if the reason for having one accountable person is that it will make things more accountable to the public and serve them better, why will the Government not give the public a chance to decide whether they want that template in the first place?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that local authorities already have the power to put mayors in place, and local authority mayors are different from what is being proposed under the Metro Mayor model. Local authorities already have that power, without referendums. We as a Government are trying to give combined authorities the same power to deliver that accountability for those larger areas, and the directly accountable individual that local people can hold to account.
I will touch on a number of other issues that hon. Members raised, including the question of whether this project is just for cities. Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), for Carlisle (John Stevenson), and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), and the hon. Members for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), asked whether counties count too. The answer is that of course they do. The Bill we are considering is an enabling one that will allow us to tailor packages for different areas right across the country. We want to see cities succeed—they can be drivers of growth—but counties contribute a huge amount to our economy as well, and we want all those areas to come forward, make deals and find devolution settlements that work for them, so the Government are making an absolute commitment to pursue devolution not only for cities but for counties.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole also asked about boundaries. This is a bottom-up process, and I say to him that if proposals come forward from local areas both for the powers they want and the areas they want them to apply to, we are open to listening to those proposals and making a deal with those areas. We want local areas to come forward with that approach.
The health budget was raised in the context of powers that might be devolved. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) made an important contribution on that issue, recognising the opportunity that arises when health and social care budgets can be brought together, and the work that can be done locally to drive better provision of those sorts of services. That approach is already being pursued in the Greater Manchester model.
This Bill is an opportunity that the Government are introducing to rebalance our economy, to drive the northern powerhouse while driving economic growth across the country as a whole and to transfer powers away from Whitehall in a way that will not only provide accountability at a local level but allow local areas to make decisions more quickly and effectively, tailoring them to their needs, so they can grow their economies for the benefit of us all.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(14)).