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Northern Powerhouse

Volume 767: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they have for strengthening the role and powers of town and parish councils, particularly as part of the northern powerhouse.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name, and remind the House of my local government interests.

My Lords, the northern powerhouse is empowering local areas through devolution, bringing decision-making closer to local people. It is right that local areas are able to involve their towns and parishes as they see fit. The Government are providing additional support to those towns and parishes wishing to exercise the community rights provided by the Localism Act 2011: for example, developing neighbourhood plans, listing assets of community value and running services using the right to challenge.

My Lords, all over the north of England there are small towns and villages with town and parish councils in which the northern powerhouse is no more than a remote slogan and of little relevance or meaning. At the same time, local services are being slashed, taken apart and closed down. What advice would the Minister give on behalf of the Government to towns and parishes, and what action should they take in those circumstances?

My Lords, the northern powerhouse and devolution should not be remote to any area of the country in which devolution is taking place. Whether it is in transport or in increases in the local jobs market—and actually, the north-west has seen the biggest employment growth of any region in the last few years—local people should be able to feel the effects of the northern powerhouse and devolution. Through the Localism Act, local areas such as town and parish council areas should be able to feel the empowerment more than ever.

My Lords, under the Government’s devolution proposals, there will be areas of the country, like Lancashire, with local parish and town councils, district councils, county councils and combined authorities with elected mayors. In the light of tomorrow’s spending review and the forthcoming local government settlement—in which, like his predecessor, the Secretary of State appears to have been first across the Treasury’s door to offer up local government for cuts—what assurances can the Minister give that this pyramidal structure will not be used to house the mummified remains of effective local government?

My Lords, devolution means empowering communities, from local authorities right down to town and parish councils, and even local neighbourhoods. I do not think—in terms of what the Government have been doing, certainly through devolution and some of their plans for the northern powerhouse—that anybody could accuse local government of not being at the forefront of this Government’s policy.

My Lords, the northern powerhouse has great potential to bring social and economic benefit to many people, but it is fundamental from the very start that we embed it in the rural communities. Micro-businesses employing fewer than 10 people make a very significant contribution to the rural economy, yet previous approaches to regional development tended to ignore or sideline the rural dimension of it. Will the noble Lord the Minister assure the House that, with the northern powerhouse and other devolved areas, there will be a specific, focused and relevant approach to providing resources for small rural businesses?

My Lords, I am getting quite fond of the right reverend Prelate calling me “the noble Lord the Minister” and I take no offence whatever. He is absolutely right, and he has brought up the point about rural communities before. Of course, in many areas where we see devolution, we see rural communities. Most authorities—in Greater Manchester, for example—have rural areas such as Rochdale, Oldham, Stockport and even Trafford, so rural communities are very important. He is absolutely right to point out that they should not be left behind, and, with some of the strengthened powers that central government has given them, they should be able to achieve this.

My Lords, a recent BBC-commissioned survey showed that two-thirds of people in the north had either not heard of the northern powerhouse or knew nothing about it. Given the deep cuts to local council budgets expected tomorrow, does the Minister agree that it has become essential to produce a strategic investment plan for the northern powerhouse area in order to give the public confidence that the northern powerhouse is a reality?

My Lords, they might not have heard of the northern powerhouse but—as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—they certainly will have felt the effects of it. In Yorkshire, for example, more jobs have been created than in the whole of France put together. As I also said to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, there has been, in the north-west, the highest employment growth, and in the north-east, the highest rate of business start-ups. Whether people label that as the northern powerhouse, or just say that life feels a bit better, they should certainly feel the benefits. In terms of a strategy, we have a simple one: to enable areas of the north to maximise their economic potential.

Is my noble friend aware that during the last recess, I went to see my tailor in Ossett? While talking to other people who were shopping at that particular retailer, I felt that there was a great vibrancy about the local town council there, and what it was doing. Also, although Bedfordshire is not in the northern powerhouse, as far as I am concerned the town councillors there do a first-class job as well.

I thank my noble friend for that question. I was not aware that he had gone to Oxford in the recess—perhaps I should have been. He is absolutely right: town councils now feel very much more empowered in driving forward the future of their communities. So I am not surprised to hear that the particular town council he talked about was feeling very upbeat.

My Lords, could the Minister explain the strange anomaly that seems to have arisen where her Tory Government grant devolution to local authorities, the northern powerhouse, et cetera, while the devolved Scottish Government are taking power away from local authorities in Scotland?

My Lords, would the Minister please ensure that she assesses whether the allocation of resources tomorrow means that counties such as my home county of Lancashire get equal treatment with other county areas in the country—even those counties which happen to have the Prime Minister as one of their MPs?