John Stevenson: I spoke about local government after the last Queen’s Speech. The political environment was then very different, and my speech was made more in hope than expectation. How life can change. The environment is now completely different, with a new Government with a strong majority and a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a real and significant difference—an opportunity to be reforming and radical.
Local government has often been underrated and underappreciated, yet it can be and often is very effective. Following the great recession of 2008-09, local government adjusted remarkably well in what were very difficult financial circumstances. Indeed, the importance of local government and its ability to deal with things should not be underestimated.
If the Government’s agenda is to become a reality, local government will be one of the vehicles that will help to deliver their policies. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that local government and its powers and structures are in serious need of an overhaul if it is to deliver the policies and services we want to see.
The new political environment therefore gives the Government a unique opportunity to change the present arrangements, and doing so could achieve two fundamental things. First, it could improve the balance of power between central Government and local government. As has often been said, we are a heavily centralised country and we need to rebalance the relationship between central Government and local government. Secondly, we have an opportunity to rebalance the national economy, with greater economic growth and development in the regions. Those are two things that successive Governments, of both political colours, have failed to do over the past 20 or 30 years.
I encourage Ministers to be imaginative, ambitious and bold. If they are, future generations will reap significant benefits and the country as a whole will be much more balanced and, I suspect, much better off. I therefore welcome the proposed White Paper, but I encourage Ministers to start the reforming process now, rather than later.
The key elements of reform are threefold: structural change; devolution; and investment. For some time, I have been convinced that the structure of local government needs changing. First, we must move towards having more unitary councils. Unitaries are generally larger, so they have greater heft when it comes to policy initiatives. They are generally more efficient, transparent and better understood by voters. They can also lead to substantial savings, which then benefit the services they provide. Secondly, I am a firm believer that the introduction of mayors for both cities and more rural areas would be beneficial. We have a lot of maiden speeches today and we have heard older Members referring to their own maiden speeches. Interestingly, when I made mine, 10 years ago, I said that I thought the innovative idea of elected mayors would be beneficial to this country and, in particular, to devolution. I believe they give clear, visible leadership—in effect, there is nowhere to hide—and they have the potential to attract individuals with vision and ambition. The mayors we already have are evidence that that is correct. Combined with reformed structures, proper devolution needs to take place, with real power and proper responsibility, including tax-raising powers, given to mayors and authorities. These reforms will help to lay the foundations of a renaissance in the regions.
The third element is equally important: investment—hard cash. Of course cities and regions must help themselves, but help from central Government will be crucial if it is to have a real impact. Funding is needed for infrastructure, such as rail, roads, digital, and education and skills, but policy changes also matter. The creation of free ports—here I wish to make a pitch for Carlisle Lake District airport/freeport—would send a powerful message of the Government’s intentions. In addition, local government must ensure that it works to attract private investment, hence it is important to have attractive public realms, good schools, quality housing—in effect, an appealing social environment.
Economic success will drive the regions. I could be parochial and suggest that Carlisle and Cumbria is almost a case study, with some recent real achievements and positives: the garden village; road investment; the Borderlands; and town centre funding. Yet to truly unleash its potential it requires Government help: structural reform, whereby seven councils may come down to two; powers to invest; and the opportunity to have a mayor for Cumbria, to give it visibility and leadership. I look forward to working with Ministers to achieve that. To conclude, if we are truly to bring in a new age and unleash the potential of our regions, I encourage Ministers to be ambitious, brave and bold. Above all, let’s get on with it.