A divide has emerged between Labour’s frontbench and some of its own backbenchers over the party’s failure to support the government’s flagship devolution legislation.
In a debate about the second reading of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill this afternoon, shadow communities secretary Jon Trickett rejected the bill’s provisions, demanding instead a “wholesale” national devolution settlement which did not impose elected mayors on areas without referenda.
The debate was occurring after overwhelmingly Labour-controlled councils in Greater Manchester and Sheffield signed landmark devolution deals with the government, in which they backed elected mayors in exchange for additional powers. Their counterparts in the north east and Teesside are expected to soon agree deals with ministers.
In reference to communities secretary Greg Clark, Mr Trickett said: “Unlike him we would devolve in a bottom up, not a top-down manner.”
Mr Trickett said: “We will launch a constitutional convention with other parties to try to reach out to every village, town hall and city hall across the country to test the arguments about a new settlement for Britain.”
His speech led to Clive Betts, the Labour MP for Sheffield South East, to ask him whether he accepted that “it’s not our party’s position to stand in the way of devolution deals to places like Sheffield, Greater Manchester and elsewhere?”.
Later in the debate, Mr Betts, also chair of the Commons communities and local government committee, said: “While there are disagreements about the pace of devolution the direction of travel is absolutely given, credit must be given to the government and the secretary of state for driving this agenda forwards.
“There probably never was a chance of getting a big bang across the board settlement.”
Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton, said: “I welcome very strongly this bill – it’s an enabling bill that allows negotiations between local authorities and central government. It brings about the beginning of the end of centralisation in this country.”
He described Labour’s failure to devolve over the years as a “sin of omission”.
Speaking after the debate, Alexandra Jones, chief executive of Centre for Cities, said: “If this bill fails to pass, it will be a major setback to cities and regions across the UK and to the prospects of long-term growth in the national economy, and won’t prevent further spending cuts.
“No bill is perfect, but this offers a historic opportunity to reverse decades of centralisation in the UK by making it possible for cities and regions to have more power over decisions about local housing, transport and investment.
“Local leaders across the country – Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat – have been working tirelessly with the Government over the past year to agree devolution deals that will support local economic growth, but all those efforts will come to nothing unless the bill is passed.
“MPs who oppose the bill should be clear that this is not a debate about the government’s spending plans or about how the bill is enacted. Voting against the bill will not prevent further spending cuts, but it will deny cities and regions across the UK the chance to boost jobs growth and benefit from more localised decision-making.”