Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill Second Reading
14th October 2014
Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): This is a great day. It is the beginning of what will be a very long journey. I think that we will probably have two more Bills on devolution before the end of this Parliament, but at the general election in 2020 we will look back and all the anxieties about the detail in the Bill—some of which we disagree with, of course—will have become irrelevant as most local authorities in England will have devolved to some extent or another. That will be the future. I must put on record again that I think that the Secretary of State has been foremost in introducing the Bill. He has a fantastic record of working with local government and with Labour local government, in particular, through his work with the core cities and on the cities agenda. The Bill is part of a line of progression.
Of course, we cannot have perfection in the first Bill, but those who have some sort of aldermanic sclerosis and believe that we will not move anywhere unless we get absolutely everything right are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is important that we move on devolution now in a way that previous Governments, regrettably, did not. This is the most fantastic opportunity, in my opinion, for all of us who care about the principle of devolution, enabling people to make decisions as closely as is humanly possible to where they are and where they live.
It is the beginning of the end of possibly several hundred years of the imperial view that Whitehall knows best and that only the man in Whitehall can tell people whether they should have double yellow lines on their high streets or be allowed to have a betting shop on their street corner. What nonsense. It is treating one’s own country as if its people are slaves, rather than liberating them to make a genuine economic contribution, in times of austerity and at other times, as well as a social and political contribution locally. Even with the distinguished colleagues around me, I do think our politics is over-blessed with too big a gene pool. Why should not the leader of our capital stand to be leader of one of our great parties? Why should not the leader of Greater Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle or anywhere else push our politics forward with a lot of local experience? This is something of which many Governments in the recent past have been bereft.
This is the beginning of a journey. I personally would rather we did not have a mayor—Nottingham voted not to have a mayor. However, if we continue this journey and have another Bill and another one after that, I am sure that we will devolve to such an extent that we will liberate people in the localities to choose their own system of governance and method of election. That will be a definition of devolution achieved.
Andrew Gwynne: Part of that choice on localism is the level at which it is most appropriate to make decisions. Forty-odd years ago, my constituency was a patchwork of urban district councils and small municipal boroughs, and people still very much identify with those neighbourhoods. Is it not right that we also seek to empower those communities again?
Mr Allen: The movement from Whitehall to town hall is very welcome, but then we must go the extra mile. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), an SNP Member, is no longer here, because we do not want to go the way of pushing power from Westminster to Holyrood, only for the latter, instead of dispersing some of that power, to suck it up and create a national view on everything, rather than liberating the talents in Scottish local government. There are many lessons to learn from Scotland—we should be humble about that experience and learn everything possible—but that is probably one exception to the rule about listening to how the SNP has done things in Scotland.
There will then be a broader picture. Once we have embedded devolution and organically we have made a start, when it is proving its worth and we can demonstrate that we will add value to every single pound, we can move to the next stage, which is the one outlined by the Opposition Front-Bench team. It is to see it as part of the broader jigsaw of a constitutional convention that will consider local government’s role, as part of the debate about devolution in England, an elected second Chamber and a written settlement, among other things.
It is important that what Whitehall giveth, Whitehall does not taketh away. As the Secretary of State is aware, that will mean at some point entrenching the progress we make so that it can never be reversed. That will mean super-majorities in the House, hiding stuff behind the Parliament Act 1911 and so on. There are lots of ways to make it difficult for the wrong sort of Secretary of State to suck these powers back up.
Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a typically excellent speech. Is not the basic challenge of the Bill that it strengthens the Secretary of State’s hand with local government but not with Whitehall? He needs a few more ambition clauses that force his colleagues to devolve more rather than less and not to rely on backroom negotiations in the Treasury. For example, should we not be devolving many more powers to help local authorities, such as my hon. Friend’s, deal with the entrenched challenges of poverty and deprivation?
Mr Allen: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. What we are doing now is pushing that enormous heavy ball up the mountain—and it is just starting to move. Let us keep that momentum going, and when local government has proved its worth and we have developed the capability and potential of local councillors and officials—I am loth to make any criticism of them, given how we sometimes run the country—they will demand those extra powers. That is certainly the case on issues relating to health and employment. That will come. People will say, “We can do this; we can raise a bond on the open market; we can run something by our local population; we can raise additional taxation—if local people agree with it”, which is very important, as was mentioned earlier.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) made a specific point about how to help areas of high deprivation. He and I share an unfortunate medal in that we are in the bottom 10 local authorities when it comes to deprivation. This will be immensely liberating. My right hon. Friend and I know, but our councillors know much better than anybody—even the Secretary of State from Whitehall—how to spend a pound effectively in the local context. It is all about bringing sensitivity and capability back to our governance, and instead of fighting with one hand tied behind our backs, it is about enabling people to make decisions locally. Local people above all will want to maximise the potential of every austere pound that comes their way.
For the bigger picture, I think a constitutional convention running alongside this process is essential. I hope that the Government will generously agree to participate in anything that all other parties come together to discuss on that basis. They will not be able to legislate on it, but it is important for them to participate in the debate and have that discussion. In the end, the Secretary of State’s Fabian view of moving forward—slowly, steadily and gently making progress—has been proved right. We need to ensure that such an approach is supported in the longer term. The Bill has flaws, but it provides a fantastic start, so I commend it to the House.