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Devolution (Local Communities)

Volume 597: debated on Monday 29 June 2015

We shall have a moment of silence at the end of Question Time, but I think that, as we gather together in the House at this point, we will all want to share our condemnation of the atrocities in Tunisia, Kuwait and France last week. All our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.

The Government are committed to devolving greater powers away from Whitehall to drive economic growth. We have already taken steps to enable that to happen by introducing the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. I welcome devolution proposals from all areas, including proposals relating to how powers might be devolved to cities, towns, counties and neighbourhoods throughout the country.

I echo what the Secretary of State said about recent events.

I agree with the Secretary of State about the need for further devolution of powers, but there is considerable disagreement in the north-east about the need for an elected mayor. Will he commit himself to giving people in the north-east a say in a referendum?

I am having discussions with the leaders of the north-eastern authorities, and I expect to see them later in the week. There is a real groundswell of opinion in the north-east that now is the time to put aside some of the divisions that have held it back, and to have clear leadership. Nothing will be imposed on an area, but I look forward to meeting the leaders and hearing their proposals.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that neighbourhood planning represents the best way of ensuring that communities have a real say in the planning system when it comes to deciding where houses should go, what they should look like, and what green and open spaces should be preserved?

I do indeed. My hon. Friend is a pioneer of neighbourhood planning. He worked closely with me when I was last a Minister in the Department to ensure that it was introduced, and it has been a huge success. The first neighbourhood plan was in Thame, in his constituency. More than 1,500 communities are now engaged in the neighbourhood planning process, and 300 neighbourhood plans have been published for consultation. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has accepted my invitation to work with me to see what we can do to speed up the possibilities for other neighbourhoods throughout the country.

The Government’s decision last week to shelve plans for the electrification of the Leeds to Manchester railway line fundamentally undermined the concept of the northern powerhouse. When were DCLG Ministers first informed of the decision, and were they informed before or after the election? What opportunity was given to local authorities such as Kirklees to make recommendations to various Ministers?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made a substantial statement on the matter, and it was clear that he was dissatisfied with the performance of Network Rail in this respect. However, it is worth our reminding ourselves—and it is important for those in the north to recognise—that £38 billion is being invested in the transport system, which is the most significant investment since Victorian times. As for electrification, only 10 miles of line were electrified during the 13 years for which the last Government were in office, but we are committed to it.

The success of city deals so far has been due to the fact that Ministers have avoided over-prescriptive rules, and instead have focused on what each deal can do for each community. May I strongly encourage the Secretary of State to ensure that that flexibility is retained, particularly in smaller towns and counties?

I will certainly take that approach. My hon. Friend was a great force in working with the local enterprise partnerships in their early days, and respecting the fact that every place is different. It would be ludicrous to observe those differences and then impose a uniform requirement in all places.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments about Tunisia?

In all the debates about the northern powerhouse, I am very keen for us not to forget the southern powerhouse. What powers does the Secretary of State expect to devolve from Westminster to cities such as Brighton and Hove?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware of the success of the Brighton city deal, which has been warmly welcomed throughout his area, and which is one of the reasons for the fact that unemployment in his constituency has fallen by 53% since May 2010. That is a powerhouse that is performing.

One of the great advantages of my right hon. Friend’s devolutionist approach is that city deals can capture the variation that occurs in key areas such as the housing market, which will vary from city to city. Will he talk to organisations such as the Royal Town Planning Institute, which is keen to establish what further work can be done to capture the link between devolution and housing delivery?

I will indeed, and again I pay tribute to the work my hon. Friend did in the Department in inaugurating this transfer of powers. Housing will be of great importance in all the deals we are negotiating and expect to conclude. There is an appetite for that right across the country and I will certainly take the advice of the RTPI.