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Devolution: England

Volume 805: debated on Tuesday 28 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for the further devolution of power and decision-making in England.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

We intend to publish the local recovery devolution White Paper in the autumn. This will set out our plans for expanding devolution across England, building on the success of our directly elected combined authority mayors. Our plans will involve introducing more elected mayors and giving them and existing mayors the powers that they need to lead economic recovery and long-term growth.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that one major lesson of the Covid-19 pandemic is that centralised control of England has not worked well? Will he now confirm that the Government are not planning to impose a top-down reorganisation of local government across England but will consult on a system of devolution based on evidence, consent and democratic accountability for local communities and that this will not be a compulsory, standardised and centralised model?

My Lords, there is no doubt that we share the same ambition to see further decentralisation and devolution over time. This is very much a process. I would not want to pre-empt the White Paper, but we have made a commitment to directly elected mayors as the point of accountability to lead economic recovery.

My Lords, however power is devolved, it is crucial that it remains democratically accountable, but such accountability is damaged when 8 million people who are eligible to vote are not on the electoral register and so cannot vote. In this country, the register is only 84% complete, compared with, for example, Canada, where it is 96% complete. Why do the Government not make more strenuous and effective efforts to complete the register?

I note the points about the electoral register. That is very much an endeavour for all tiers of government, including local government and the electoral registration officers who help to ensure that we have a fuller register of electors. It is important that we continue to make every effort to do that.

My Lords, what evidence does the Minister have from international comparators to prove that outcomes from devolution in England will be improved by moving to single-tier local authority areas?

Evidence in a report by Ernst & Young in 2016 showed that around £30 million of savings could be realised annually by unitarisation. However, I am sure that other evidence will be brought forward during the individual discussions that are taking place where authorities want to unitarise.

My Lords, in 1996, the CPC national policy group on the constitution, of which I was a member, argued that local government should live up to its name, with power driven as far down to localities as possible—the more local, the better—and responsive to local demand. Does my noble friend agree with the argument we advanced that doing so would engage the commitment of citizens by giving them a greater say as well as being an equitable, UK-wide policy and not simply an English solution?

My noble friend is right that decisions that affect local people should be made at a local level. As the Prime Minister recently said, now is the moment to strengthen the incredible partnership between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The White Paper will detail how the UK Government will partner with places across the UK to build a sustainable economic recovery.

My Lords, the current crisis offers the opportunity to reduce social inequality and develop a more participatory democracy. Larger influences often arise from community involvement. If we are serious about dealing with major social and economic issues, we have also to be serious about encouraging local leadership and local ownership. Are the Government fully committed to empowering and funding the new local groups and social networks that are emerging to meet community needs?

My Lords, the Government are aware that participation at the local level is important. We continue to support groups such as citizens advice groups and West London Citizens—with which I work—that provide that direct democracy.

Michael Gove said yesterday that devolution gives us the best of both worlds: local decision-making and strength and security with our fellow citizens. Over the past 20 years, Scotland and Wales have had accountability with their First Ministers via elected Members. Does the Minister agree that the regions of England are entitled to the same rights?

The devolution in England that we are seeking is through the local leadership afforded by local mayors rather than the regional devolution models of Scotland and Wales. That is the basis on which we will outline further measures in the White Paper this autumn.

My Lords, I declare my position as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, suggested that the Government should not impose a compulsory standardised model—indeed, reference has just been made to the way in which the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales have worked so well. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider consulting local people, looking to far more democratic, proportional and fair voting systems—the systems that local people want to deliver—and not enforcing the kind of single, strong leader model that the noble Lord the Minister just referred to?

We continue to recognise the importance of local leadership. Mayors provide that local accountability and an opportunity for people to select the local leaders they want to drive the economic recovery in their areas. That is the model that we propose to outline in our forthcoming White Paper.

My Lords, I note what my noble friend says about the White Paper, but can he update the House on progress on devolution to the Leeds/Bradford city region, which is much needed in my view?

There has been a huge amount of progress. My honourable friend the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government has announced conversations with York and North Yorkshire. The West Yorkshire deal has already been agreed and is about to be enacted, so a lot of progress has been made on a number of fronts.

My Lords, the Government recently introduced the non-domestic rating Bill in the House of Commons, which would exempt public conveniences from paying non-domestic rates. Will they consider similar rate exemptions for other public services and facilities that are devolved to local authorities or could be in the future, and how will they ensure national consistency in the delivery of such services?

My Lords, I strongly endorse the view that the Government should not impose a centralised approach or their favoured type of devolution on the regions but should work with them on what will work best in particular parts of the country. Can I urge the Government to look also at administrative devolution, including the re-establishment of government offices, which worked well with businesses and various groups within the regions on presenting their case to government?

My Lords, I do not recognise the concept of central imposition, because the Sheffield City Region agreement that was signed yesterday and discussed in the House last week took more than five years to reach. While there has been a framework, an ambition and a direction, there has always been consultation with existing local authorities.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. An important aspect of any plans for devolving powers and decision-making is fiscal decentralisation. A recent report from the Local Government Association and Localis highlighted that the UK is one of the most fiscally centralised nations in the developed world. Will the Government consider the recommendation in the report that the Treasury and MHCLG consult councils on identifying the most popular options for local levies to create new fiscal freedoms?

My noble friend is right to highlight the fiscally centralised nature of the country. We are currently reviewing how to sustainably fund mayoral combined authorities. We want to implement an effective funding model for them and will set out further details in the local recovery and devolution White Paper. Mayoral combined authorities have a number of revenue-raising powers, including the ability to raise a mayoral precept on council tax, levy a supplement on business rates subject to a ballot of affected businesses and introduce a road user charge, so those levers are in place today.