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Jim McMahon: Scotland and England can't play by different rules

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The Scottish people have spoken.

Our United Kingdom will remain united in name. Now it’s our job to make sure it is united in fact when it comes to local powers.

The game-changer is the pledges for ‘devolution max’ made by party leaders, which will mean a quantum leap forward for local powers in Scotland. With the new ‘Scotland Act’, things will never be the same. The devolution genie will be out of the bottle.

In a year’s time, our fellow citizens in Scotland could well be getting a real say on schools, housing benefit and health services in their local area.

Yet back in England things will be very different. Recent talk of ‘English only’ votes in Parliament might answer the ‘West Lothian question’ but it leaves deeper questions on real local powers unanswered.

Neither ‘English’ votes nor an ‘English’ parliament would represent true devolution. True devolution isn’t about replacing one kind of centralisation with another, it’s about giving local communities the freedom to drive their local areas. 

I’m one of 10 members of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, in which I represent my council of Oldham MBC. The authority brings together local leaders of a region with 2.7 million people and a £50bn economy.

The government needs to set out a timetable for devolution across England, pledging immediate powers to areas ready for it

What we’ve done in such a short space of time with the combined authority is remarkable. Yet despite all we have achieved, there’s still much left to do. In some areas, the ministers and mandarins 200 miles away in Whitehall still call the shots on services.

In some areas local leaders are expected to serve central government by unquestioningly carrying out their template programmes rather than serving their local communities. For example, many councillors still have to put up with the same one-size-fits-all taxes and the same blanket approach to skills. And, in England at least, there’s no sign of this changing any time soon.

And it’s not just Manchester. What about the Leeds City Region, the North East Combined Authority and the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority? Each represents millions of people and billions of pounds of economic growth and investment.

If local powers are good enough for Scotland, aren’t they good enough for these ‘angels of the north’? What about non-urban areas in other parts of England, such as Cornwall for example? And what about local areas in Wales?

Here’s the bottom line: one rule for Scotland and another for England is totally unacceptable. Central government might not want to, but we have to face up to the inconvenient truth: when it comes to local services, ‘devolution max’ could transform English residents from Sunderland to St Ives into second-class citizens.

The clock is ticking and we need to act now. That’s why we at the LGA are calling for a constitutional convention to speed up the process of English devolution. The convention would launch a debate on opening up devolution beyond Scotland and it wouldn’t shy away from controversial issues.

Items on the agenda would include devolution of funding and decisions on transport, skills and economic development to English cities and counties as well as greater local decision making about health and care devolved to those places. It would also discuss devolution of an appropriate share of the tax base to pay for these. 

The convention is no luxury, it’s an urgent necessity. The government needs to set out a timetable for devolution across England, pledging immediate powers to areas that are ready for them now. If not, our precious principles of citizenship, equality and even democracy in our United Kingdom would be thrown into question.

The people of England’s towns, cities and regions need the same, local control over their services that ‘devolution max’ has pledged to Scotland. They need the same local knowledge to provide the education, jobs and housing for them and their families. And they need it now.

Jim McMahon is leader of Oldham MBC and leader of the LGA Labour group

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