Shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn has urged cities and counties to arrange themselves into regional groupings that would be well-placed to receive significant devolved powers.
In an interview with LGC at the Labour party conference in Manchester, Mr Benn said if his party was in power after the May general election he would be willing to devolve powers and funding in relation to transport, infrastructure and skills to local areas, but that it was up to councils to form bodies that could “receive” these powers.
“Bring yourselves together, county regions as well as city regions,” he said.
“This is a new deal offer to all parts of England, but get ready, get organised because [I won’t] sit with a pen and draw lines on a map because it differs from place to place,” he said.
“For the big things we are talking about – skills, transport, infrastructure – local government knows it makes sense to come together in areas where you have got travel-to-work areas and economic geography, and I think there’s a huge opportunity here but we’ve got to get ourselves organised to receive it.
“Around the country you will find more discussions about how we are going to get organised. My view is this has to be a bottom-up process because this is local government deciding how it’s going to do it.”
Mr Benn said it was important that councils and local businesses had a “common vision” of how to achieve economic growth. He added: “We really ought to be looking at common boundaries between these new local government structures and the LEPs [local enterprise partnerships].”
Asked whether a future Labour government would want to see the creation of elected mayors in return for greater devolved powers, Mr Benn said: “My view on elected mayors is simple: it’s for local people to decide.
“You look around the country and you have got outstanding mayors, you have had some mayors who have been not so good, and you’ve got outstanding leaders of councils and others not so good.
“What is the conclusion I draw? It’s the quality of the leadership that matters and it’s merely a local choice. The mechanisms are there – if people want to make a change they can do so. But if they want to keep an elected leader and cabinet system they are free to do so.”
He said he wanted local public accounts committees to maintain checks on the use of devolved powers and spending. “It is about a complete devolution and then local people through the political process and local public accounts committees can hold these people to account for what they have done,” Mr Benn added
At a fringe event, shadow infrastructure minister Lord Adonis told delegates he supported the concept of “elected chief executives” but did not outline details of this model and how it would differ from an elected mayoral model.
Asked whether he knew what Lord Adonis meant, Mr Benn said: “To be perfectly honest I am not sure.”