John Stevenson: The Minister is talking a lot about those areas where there is devolution already or where there is the potential for devolution, but what about those areas where there seems to be an absence of any discussions?
Dehenna Davison: As I say, we have discussions under way at the moment and we are looking ahead to which new devolution deals we can start exploring. I am certainly happy to work with my hon. Friend to see if this is something we can deliver in his local area in Cumbria, too.
Our first amendment relates to clause 16, which allows the conferral of local authority functions, including those of county councils, unitary councils and district councils, on to a combined county authority, or CCA.
John Stevenson: I want to speak to new clauses 1 and 2, but particularly new clause 1, which relates to the election of Mayors. These are straightforward new clauses and I will not be putting them to a vote, but I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to new clause 1 in particular, because I think it addresses a gap in the current devolution discussions.
When it comes to devolution, my preferred option would be for far more radical reform. I believe that local government in England is in need of substantial reform and that the Government should embrace devolution. The way to do this is to have devolution settlements right across the country with the appropriate powers and responsibilities so that we properly decentralise and also have consistency. I also think that, as part of that, the introduction of Mayors everywhere is a positive thing.
James Grundy: Does my hon. Friend not recognise that, as we have heard from my right hon. Friend George Eustice, not every area of the country wants a Mayor, and that it would be wrong to force a Mayor on those areas?
John Stevenson: I will come to that point about particular areas. My belief is that if we believe in devolution, we have to set out what we believe, embrace it and introduce it. One of the problems with our present devolution settlement is that there is too much inconsistency. There is a patchwork of devolution and a patchwork of local government that is not in any way beneficial for individual areas or for the country as a whole.
I genuinely believe that the introduction of Mayors has brought leadership to particular areas. It also creates accountability and responsibility, and we are seeing the successes up and down the country, including in Teesside, in the midlands and in Manchester, where we have Mayors who have demonstrated leadership in their locality. But the Government’s approach seems to be very different. They have adopted what I would describe as a gradualist approach to devolution, a policy that appears to be about bottom-up with a degree of incentives or pushing local areas to go down a particular route. I accept that it has had some success, and there is indeed some potential success in the pipeline, but it has been limited to date.
The result of Government policy is uneven devolution and, as I have said, a patchwork of inconsistency across the country. What we really need is clarity and consistency, but I accept that that is probably going to be for the future rather than for the next couple of years. Right now, I do at least support the direction of travel that the Government are taking with regard to devolution and I will certainly support the Bill, but their approach appears to be only to approach existing local authorities to instigate discussions for a devolution settlement in that particular area. They are almost waiting for requests for devolution, and any success will depend on the decisions of local authorities in particular parts of the country.
But what about those areas where there is support for devolution, but not necessarily from the local authority in that area? Areas can be held back by the actions of individuals or individual authorities when in fact that locality supports a devolution settlement and actually wants one. We saw that happen in Cumbria a few years back when a devolution settlement was in prospect but held back in many respects by the views of the leader of a particular council. For example, businesses in a particular area could be supportive of a Mayor and devolution, as could charities, parish councillors and minority political parties on councils—indeed, councils could be divided on the issue—but for one reason or another the dominant view would be against a devolution settlement rather than for one. There could also be support for devolution among the wider population. There is a growing appreciation that areas that do not end up with a devolution settlement and a Mayor are likely to be left behind. Because of the finance and a Mayor’s ability to be an advocate, areas will lose out if they do not have that voice. When the Chancellor goes to the north of England to speak to local leaders, his automatic choice will be to speak to Mayors. Areas that are bereft of a devolution settlement do not have a Mayor, so they will be left behind.
I tabled new clause 1 to create a reserve power for the Government to step in if they feel that a particular area has an appetite for devolution and a Mayor but is being held back by, say, the machinations of local politics. Having that reserve power would enhance the Government’s ability to negotiate devolution deals and would strengthen their position. I therefore hope they will consider introducing this measure.