The Labour party has written to every council leader in England to ask them to be ready for further devolution should the party win the general election in May.
Details of the letter were revealed by shadow local government minister Andy Sawford during a fringe debate at the Labour party conference yesterday.
“We have written to all local authority leaders around the country and asked them to start preparing so that when we hopefully win a majority government next May we will be able to quickly start to devolve power,” he said.
Mr Sawford said Labour would offer “multi-year funding deals” and would want to see “local public accounts committees”. He added it would be up to councils to tell Labour how they would make devolution work in each area.
Mr Sawford said combined authorities could be the first to receive devolved powers and funding.
“We have said that combined authorities are going to take the lead,” he said. “So Manchester is already in the lead but there are also four other areas in the country with combined authorities.”
He said he wanted to ensure authorities would be “working at a reasonable level in terms of scale and that they have got a really strong partnership with business in each economic area”.
Mr Sawford said councils “should work closely in partnership with their business community” and universities.
However, he added: “This is not about giving a small number of local business leaders some kind of veto over democratically elected people.
“Business has an important role to play in this, as they did in regional development agencies, so we shouldn’t see that as being conflicting.”
Mr Sawford said local authorities should be encouraged to use existing powers as far as possible. However, he admitted: “There is no doubt there are some really serious limitations and there is too much concentration of power in Westminster and Whitehall.”
He said he thought devolution would also spark more interest in local democracy.
“There are those that question the competence of local councils, that question the councillors we have and whether they are up to it, but I have always said that if we hand these powers to local communities, if we genuinely start to devolve, I’m sure our local democracy will become more vibrant and I’m sure many more people from different walks of life would want to take an even stronger role in their communities,” he said.
Graham Allen MP (Lab), who chairs the select committee on political and constitutional reform, said during the debate: “You have got to push that power down but also, and this might be a bit uncomfortable for some of my friends in local government, you’ve got to go beyond local government; you have got to do double devolution.
“You have got to push stuff down to the neighbourhoods and communities and give them a sense of empowerment and not just do it the town hall.”