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Devolution in England

Volume 805: debated on Tuesday 22 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they are giving to further devolution in England.

We intend to publish the devolution and local recovery White Paper in the autumn. This will set out our plans for expanding devolution across England to support economic recovery and levelling up, building on the success of our directly elected combined authority mayors.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that while there is major devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a democratic deficit in England? So will the White Paper, when it comes out, include the devolution of real power to major regions throughout the whole of England?

My Lords, there are ways for government to provide support to the devolved Administrations and across borders. I point the noble Lord to the borderlands growth deal as one such way of being able to achieve that. We are not looking at top-down devolution, but focusing on local city and growth deals as the way forward.

My Lords, further to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, will the White Paper recognise that devolving more powers to local government needs to be accompanied by greater financial freedom to use those powers? Will the White Paper explore alternative means of funding local government, perhaps broadening the base and possibly replacing business rates, which, in their present form, are increasingly difficult to defend?

I have great sympathy for my noble friend’s point, as a co-author of A Magna Carta for Localism a decade ago. I can assure him that we are reviewing the mayoral combined authority model to identify how to maximise its effectiveness, including such powers as financial freedoms and funding devolution.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the White Paper will set out firm commitments to back pan-regional bodies such as the Midlands Engine partnership, given their vital role in driving forward the levelling-up agenda in the Midlands and beyond?

My Lords, I can make that commitment to support pan-regional partnerships such as the Midlands Engine, the western gateway and northern powerhouse, to promote economic opportunities and drive forward the levelling-up agenda.

My Lords, as one of the architects of Welsh devolution I firmly believe in bringing government closer to the people in England too. Coronavirus has been a wake-up call to Whitehall that there are four Governments in the United Kingdom. Why has Westminster let so much time go by without a greater effort to iron out minor differences in devolved government health decisions, which puzzle everyone? Is the failure to agree on policies due to stubbornness?

My Lords, I do not recognise that policy paper. There was a firm commitment in the Queen’s Speech to full devolution in England but, as I said, looking to do this in a way that works with local communities.

My Lords, I understand devolution to mean the transfer of powers, competences and finance. Decentralisation of tasks under central direction with conditional funding seems to me to be what this Government propose, together with bits of Whitehall departments being sent out to the provinces but still entirely controlled by Cabinet Ministers in London. Can the Minister tell us the Government’s definition of devolution for England?

My Lords, this is much more than simple decentralisation. Devolution has now occurred to eight mayoral combined authorities, which we see as driving forward the economic performance of the regions governed by those mayors. We will continue to build on those successes.

My Lords, the effectiveness of local contact tracing compared to the centralised system has been striking during the Covid-19 pandemic. Can the Minister tell me how the White Paper has been shaped and changed by things we have learned during the Covid-19 pandemic?

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot pre-empt the White Paper on that point, but there has been full consultation that will take in the lessons learned from the pandemic.

Does my noble friend agree that while we do not necessarily need rigid uniformity in the distribution of power to areas throughout England, there does need to be some degree of equity, so that the more rural and smaller areas are not the losers relative to new and larger regional or metropolitan authorities? What is his strategy for achieving that, and will it be addressed in the White Paper?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for putting the case for rural communities. Our current mayoral combined authority model is successful in delivering both for major cities such as Manchester and areas such as North of Tyne, which have significant rural areas.

My Lords, the city regions process has been seen as a broad success that has shifted public opinion in support of greater devolution in all the UK nations. As vice-chair of the APPG on the western gateway, I assure the Minister that I am a great supporter of these deals. This proposal is unique, insofar as it covers both Wales and England and therefore includes both Governments and councils across the regions. Can the Minister update the House on the progress of this deal? I anticipate that a written reply would be appropriate.

My Lords, this is understood as a political and economic matter, as we have heard, but does the Minister agree that there is a significant cultural dimension, not least because our various institutions are seen as a devolutionary tool, moving the Lords being just the latest idea? Should not the regions be enabled to build on their own culture, which will happen in the fullest sense only if our cities and regions have real power and are represented at the national level, rather than being subjected to a form of London colonialism?

My Lords, I recognise the importance of enabling local leadership to drive forward the cultural agenda of particular places and I am sure that that will be discussed more fully in the forthcoming White Paper.

My Lords, will my noble friend look at the proposals in the Policy Exchange document No More Tiers, which proposes that power should reside in communities such as the one I live in now, at Eastbourne, rather than be handed down from higher authorities?

My Lords, I will take a careful look at the No More Tiers paper published by Policy Exchange some 14 years ago. I can assure my noble friend that there will be no blanket abolition of districts and that we will take a locally driven approach and ensure that decision-making is taken as close as possible to the people we are serving.

I am glad to hear the Minister say that, because my question is around unitary authorities. Obviously, the rumour mill is rife at the moment that this is causing some delays. The Minister will be aware that many councils are already working on plans for this, either with a positive frame or negatively, and that any delay or uncertainty is unsettling and demoralising. It has financial and practical implications. If we take recruitment, who wants to move to an authority that might not exist in two years’ time; and who wants to waste taxpayers’ money working up economic models that are never going to happen? Can the Minister reassure us that the Government recognise that this is a real issue for local government, and that these very important decisions will be made swiftly, as soon as possible?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes the important point that we need to move quickly and make decisions so that we are clear about the future. I have assured the House that unitarisation will not be a topdown, blanket approach and we will not see the wholesale abolition of districts.