Mr Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this important debate.
I make it clear that Labour supports devolution to cities, counties and communities in every part of the United Kingdom for a simple reason: decisions are
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better if they are taken closer to the people they affect. In the past, Governments of every political colour have been too centralising, which is one reason why people have lost trust in politics. Power feels too remote, too unaccountable and too disconnected from people’s everyday lives and everyday concerns. The time has come to get power out of Whitehall and into the hands of people across the country.
The previous coalition Government claimed to be localist, but the evidence tells a different story, and I speak as someone who led a reasonably high-profile council until I was elected to this place in December 2012. Education was centralised in Whitehall, with civil servants and national Ministers taking decisions about where schools would be built and who would run them. There was little, if any, engagement with parents, local communities or local government and, as a result, mistakes were made. The Government told councils how and when they should empty bins, how they could communicate with local residents and how much council tax they could charge. They told councils what level of financial reserves they should hold to cover known risks, and then they denounced those councils for not spending the same money on the day-to-day services that they had to operate. I even received a letter from a Minister telling me how and where the council should organise street parties.
Now we have a new Government also claiming that they will devolve and decentralise. That sounds good, but the omens are less good. We have just had our first sight of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which does not include any proposals for devolving specific powers. Devolution must be on offer to every part of the country and should benefit every city region, not just Greater Manchester. Devolution should benefit towns and county regions, too, not just our major urban areas. And devolution should not stop at the town hall. Tenants need more control over the homes they rent. Patients need more control over the health and care services they use. Parents need more control over the schools their children attend. Unemployed people need more control over the support on offer to help them get back to work. Devolution should be about handing power to the people.
Fundamentally, devolution cannot work without a fair funding settlement or longer-term funding deals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) said, the areas that are being identified for devolution are those that have suffered the greatest cuts. Areas are being set up to fail, which feeds my concern, shared by many others, that the primary thing the Government want to localise is the blame for cuts they have made in Whitehall. Perhaps the starkest contradiction of all is that devolution is on offer only if it comes with an elected mayor. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said:
“I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”
Surely localism means trusting local people to take decisions for themselves, rather than having to rely on the occupant of No. 11 Downing Street.
Why do the Government feel that devolution needs to be accompanied by a mayor? Does the Minister not think that combined authorities are capable of finding a model of governance that is acceptable to the people they represent? Why are the Government choosing to propose only one model with a “take it or leave it” offer
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designed in Whitehall? There is nothing localist about doing it that way. Labour wants much more devolution and decentralisation, and Labour-run cities are at the forefront of the devolution agenda. Combined authorities need a wide range of powers to create jobs, build homes, keep communities healthy and provide support to those who need it most, but there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. That does not work, and the Government should not be putting barriers in the way of parts of the country that want more devolution.
Why do the Government not give local people a choice? They cannot end the culture of “Whitehall knows best” by letting Whitehall override the preferences of areas that want more devolution but also want to choose how they are governed. Why are the Government denying local areas that choice? I hope that the Minister will tell us that he is ready to think again.
John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that local people should be involved in devolution and the right to take powers. At present, if they want to have a referendum and elect a mayor locally, 5% of the population must sign a petition. Would he be agreeable to reducing that to 1% or 2%, given that he wants local people to make decisions?
Mr Reed: My view of localism is that we must allow more such decisions to be taken by local authorities or local combined authorities in the areas that they seek to represent. The key point is that the Minister should not determine such things on behalf of those people. He cannot claim to be localist while imposing decisions on local communities.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (James Wharton): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing a debate that is clearly of such interest to colleagues of all parties. Members have raised a range of issues, many of which are fundamental to how the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill will work and many of which feed directly into hon. Members’ understandable concerns in the early stages of this debate. I hope that I can address most of those concerns in my comments.
The hon. Member for Southport accused me of the reversal of Thatcherism and the re-creation of metropolitan counties. I am not often accused of such things, nor did I expect to be accused of them on my first appearance as a Minister in a Conservative majority Government; I am sure that he will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree. We are not re-creating the metropolitan counties. They were large, cumbersome organisations with layers of bureaucracy that often conflicted with themselves. Instead, we are seeking to do what we can to transfer powers down to people sensibly and efficiently, and to build on combined authorities by empowering them to make decisions more locally and quickly and tailor those decisions to the needs of the communities that they serve. We have been accused of wanting to create Metro Mussolinis. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The hon. Member for Southport mentioned uniformity of approach—the Procrustean approach to devolving powers. Again, that is not the Government’s intention, nor is it contained in the legislation that we hope to introduce. We are seeking bespoke deals. We are saying
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to local areas, “Tell us what works for you. Tell us what geographic area works for you and what powers work for you. Come to the Government and make a deal with us that will help you grow your local economy, deliver better services for local people and, fundamentally, play a part in the northern powerhouse project that this Government are introducing to rebalance our economy so that the north of England can grow at the rate it should be able to expect, and so that the success enjoyed by London and the south over many years can be replicated across the country as a whole.”