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Pickles pledges new city deals before election

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A new round of city deals will be carried out before the general election, communities secretary Eric Pickles has said.

Conservative Conference

Speaking at a Centre for Cities fringe event at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham, Mr Pickles also heralded the announcement of “some quite exciting plans” for greater devolution to neighbourhoods if the Conservatives won the general election in May.

Mr Pickles said he supported “English votes for English laws” and believed devolution to England at a national level was necessary to see “proper devolution” within England to cities and county areas.

However, he said, the government did not need to “hold off” on “devolution to English cities and to county areas” while it addressed the “English votes for English laws” issue.

“We have in the few months left of this coalition government time to do a new round of city deals and it’s certainly my intention to do so,” he said.

“But the central dilemma is this: you don’t achieve localism by creating a big structure. You don’t create localism by sucking all the powers up to a big city regional authority with … a city regional mayor.

“We’ve got to, within this process, begin to find ways to start to move devolution closer and closer to the people.

“That’s why I’ve been so pleased with neighbourhood plans. They’ve been a terrific success and they’ve been as far away from nimbys as you can imagine. If you trust the people, they will come to a sensible decision.

“And my view is that, in the next Conservative administration, we do the devolving but we also start to see the neighbourhood as the central unit in terms of service delivery and in terms of financing, and I have some quite exciting plans that will be announced not this week but in the not too distant future that will make that a reality.”

Mr Pickles said he wanted to see a constitutional change that would allow only English MPs to vote on English matters.

“If I vote for something as an English MP, on the health service or say, for example, the spare room subsidy which some people call the bedroom tax, I have to bear the responsibility for that in my constituency and face people who’ve been affected by that. Scottish MPs don’t have to do that,” he said.

“All we’re looking for is to have some equality between MPs. But I don’t think we need to hold off on devolution to English cities and to county areas to wait for that constitutional settlement.”

He said there was a “world of difference” between “devolution to a country and devolution within a country”, adding that there had been “practically no devolution in Scotland or in Wales” because national assemblies had “sucked powers from local authorities”.

“I want to see proper devolution within a country. But to do that properly, we need to have devolution to a country,” he said.

During his speech, Mr Pickles also called for the “gradual merging of decision-making by government into a single place and that’s got to be local.

“So whether it’s training or benefits or the health service, housing, education, it makes a lot of sense to get people used to working together. Because real change comes from issues.”

He said the better care fund – a £3.8bn shared budget between councils and the NHS to integrate health and social care – was an example of the approach he wanted to use more widely.

“We could’ve gone about [integration] by creating a board but, instead, we tried to get local authorities and the health service to work together to pool the budget to make a difference.”

Mr Pickles also repeated his intention to see councils’ locally retained share of business rates growth rise from its 50% level.

“I would be very disappointed if by, say, 2020 that wasn’t up to the high 80% and I’d be mortified by 2025 if that wasn’t touching the mid 90%,” he said.

“Because ultimately that money is best decided, best distributed by the people. Not necessarily by Whitehall, not necessarily by another layer of local government, not necessarily by a layer of city government but devolved to neighbourhoods where people live.”

Mr Pickles said Joseph Chamberlain, the 19th century statesman and Birmingham mayor, had “scared to death most of parliament, and one of the reasons there’s lots of restrictions on local government is that the good folks down in Westminster a hundred or so years ago became rather frightened about the amount of power that was going to cities”.

He said: “I think it’s time, in the name of Joseph Chamberlain, to set them free.”

At the same event, Birmingham City Council leader Albert Bore (Lab) called for “a genuine and radical devolution of power and financial independence to our cities and city regions.”

Addressing Mr Pickles, he said: “I know that in the past Eric has distinguished between municipalism, meaning more power for councils, and localism, which he believes means more power for the people.

“He’s also expressed some concerns that plans for powerful city regions might suck power upwards, away from the people.

“Well, in Birmingham, Eric, I believe we have the answer to your dilemma. We call it triple devolution.

“We’re asking the government to devolve to the city region and to create pooled budgets. We ourselves are committing to devolve from within the city to our neighbourhoods and communities. We want to work with the government to take those plans forward.”

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