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Revealed: local government's bids to win Whitehall powers

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The leaders and chief executives of 13 areas have set out to LGC how they seek to gain devolved responsibilities in their area.

As the final results from the Scottish independence referendum trickled in on the morning of 19 September and confirmed the “no” campaign’s victory, prime minister David Cameron told reporters outside 10 Downing Street: “Just as the people of Scotland will have more power over their affairs, so it follows that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must have a bigger say over theirs.”

However, the way in which such a transfer of power would work remains unsettled a fortnight after the big day. Mr Cameron’s speech suggested two forms: an English parliament to settle the question of “English votes for English laws” and a second approach that would “empower our great cities”.

Cities – and counties, whose leaders are increasingly frustrated at being left out of the debate – have responded quickly, putting together plans for the new powers they want to see and the governance changes they’d be willing to make in return for these.

 

 

Paul Watson, leader Sunderland City Council

 

Paul Watson (Lab), leader, Sunderland City Council

 

“With the Scottish result, the time is right [to be talking about devolution].

“We cannot afford to let that pass, otherwise we’re putting it into the long grass for another year, or two or three years, and it will just mean it does not happen.

“Our big and bold ask would be for the ‘total place’ devolution of all the public money that comes into the area.

“It would allow us to streamline things, do more for less, and that’s the driver at the moment.”

 

Alan Rhodes, leader, Nottinghamshire CC

Alan Rhodes (Lab), leader, Nottinghamshire CC

 

“We are working very closely with Nottingham City Council and our district partners to work up the ground rules around a combined authority. It seems to be the only game in town.

 “It makes common sense … we are very happy with that relationship.

“It’s far too early to say [if it would result in the abolition or merger of district councils] but I serve on a district council and I understand the role of district councils so I wouldn’t want to get into an argument about whether they should be abolished because, if we work together much more closely, the whole thing might sort itself out organically.

“I certainly think revenue-raising powers should be given to local government – we shouldn’t have to be dependent on how much the government apportions to raise council tax, for example. We know what we need and we are all accountable to the electorate.

 “There’s far too much emphasis on core cities when the counties offer much greater opportunities for economic development growth. We have got the land mass and space; the opportunities are there.”

 

Sharon Taylor, leader, Stevenage BC

 

Sharon Taylor (Lab), leader, Stevenage BC

 

“For areas like mine, I think we need to work on how we get together as a group of district councils and the county council to get the best for our local area.

“We already have a Hertfordshire leaders’ group and that includes the county council as well as the local enterprise partnership.

“That seems like a good starting point for moving forward.

“We should be bold about this and should not be afraid about letting those on the fast track [to devolution] get there first.”

 

John Weighell, leader, North Yorkshire CC

John Weighell (Con), leader, North Yorkshire CC

 

“The old regional tiers did not work well and nobody wants new tiers of government with more politicians. The north east voted down an elected regional assembly, and I’m sure Yorkshire and the Humber would have done too.

“Travel-to-work areas do not work well as units for local government because they overlap and people travel long distances nowadays. You need clear boundaries.

“You could devolve to a combined authority of, say, two or more counties and perhaps some unitaries.”

 

Mark Rogers, chief executive, Birmingham City Council

Mark Rogers, chief executive, Birmingham City Council

 

“We’re calling for financial autonomy from central government. That means being freed from the need to rely on grant and to be able, through tax-raising powers and business rates retention, to become financially independent.

“We’re saying: create a five-year transition programme to wean us completely off reliance on government grants and, at the same time, we should get a bigger bite of business rates.

“To do that, we need to plan to go beyond the current level of governance. All nine council leaders from the authorities in our LEP area are on a supervisory board which is entitled to make decisions about how to spend the single pot money. So we’ve already got the bare bones in place. Formal decisions on how to spend devolved money could be taken by scaled-up versions of the supervisory board.

“I think economic-based spending, for instance on housing and transport, should be calculated on the basis of a LEP footprint or multiple LEP footprints. The government should make a settlement at sub-regional level for all things that affect economic growth.

“The mayor question is difficult, because voters rejected it in a referendum. If you did have a mayor, there’s also a question about whether it should be a city mayor or a metro mayor. I suspect the more sensible conversation to be had is around a metro mayor because the reason London does well is that Boris has very specific responsibilities and you still have individual sovereign councils.”

 

John Mothersole, chief executive, Sheffield City Council

John Mothersole, chief executive, Sheffield City Council

 

“This has been a long journey for us but the chance of rapid progress is now. In the short term, we believe rapid progress can be made by devolving skills, housing, transport and commissioning of the work programme. It could be devolved to the combined authority, which has the same boundary as the LEP and the city region.

“In the longer term, we’d want a proper place-based budget for Sheffield and its city region. In return, we’d offer a commitment to achieving the outcomes we believe can be achieved.”

 

Keith House, leader, Eastleigh BC

Keith House (Lib Dem), leader, Eastleigh BC

 

“Clearly central government has to have something to devolve to, and we should not get bogged down in an English parliament which would effectively be the same centralisation operated in a slightly different way.

“There has to be another layer between central and local government to do things like transport and health planning; there is no reason why those decisions cannot be more local.

“The Association of Greater Manchester Authorities has a model that works for them. Elsewhere, you could perhaps also organise around something close to the LEPs.”

 

Jim Graham

Jim Graham, chief executive, Warwickshire CC

 

“In non-urban areas, counties are large enough though for some things. My personal view is that you might need something larger, say for transport, which only works at a large scale.

“Counties need to engage with central government so it does not just give priority to urban areas.

“Parts of England see a problem with powers being London based and want more independence from it.”

 

Tom Riordan, dhief executive, Leeds City Council

Tom Riordan, chief executive, Leeds City Council

 

“I think there should be an English department in Whitehall, with a cabinet minister and a permanent secretary. If this had been in place, the Barnett formula wouldn’t have survived as long as it has. Nobody is mandated to speak for England in the cabinet, and this is a bigger issue than [the current debate on] which committees of parliament vote on which issues.

“In the Leeds city region, if the prize was big enough and if there was genuine devolution of power and resources on offer, we and the government would consult people about the elected body at city region level and what it should look like, to provide accountability for the new powers on offer.

“We rejected an elected mayor in three of our cities [Bradford , Leeds and Wakefield] recently, so there isn’t a great hunger for them from the electorate.”

 

David Renard, leader, Swindon BC

David Renard (Con), leader, Swindon BC

 

“We’ve been asking … what would happen to places like Swindon under any city and county devolution?

“Swindon is surrounded by four rural counties, with which it has little in common.

“It could perhaps join with Bath and North East Somerset, but that also has connections to Bristol, or with Reading, but that is close to London, so the solution isn’t obvious.

“We could look to Swindon being a larger local authority, since our neighbours have built houses on our boundary. So there are all these areas that are in Swindon, yet not in the Swindon local authority area.”

 

Neil Clarke, leader, Rushcliffe BC

 

Neil Clarke (Con), leader, Rushcliffe BC and chair, District Councils Network

 

“Districts have been clustering in twos, threes or fours, even where they do not share a chief executive, to provide services to each other. They need to work closely with county councils as they have roles where they can collaborate, for example on benefits, growth and health and wellbeing.

“I’m certainly not against the model for combined authorities of counties, cities and districts being discussed in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, but we have to make sure there is something in it for each area.

 “An English Parliament is not something we need, but I’m in favour of English MPs deciding English issues. We do not need regional assemblies as we do not want to invent more layers of bureaucracy.”

 

Joe Anderson

Joe Anderson (Lab), mayor of Liverpool

 

“If we get powers and the ability to manage our own skills and training budgets, working with Jobcentre Plus, we know where the growth areas are going to be in our city and we can manage that … [so that residents] get a real job in the growth areas because we need those skills.

“We rely on grants, whereas if we keep a proportion of the taxes we raise, we can spend them how we see best fit and then we are accountable to local people.

“I passionately believe the agenda has to be metro mayors who are accountable and look at the bigger picture. Combined authorities can work, but they will still have that competition with each other.”

 

Nick Forbes, leader, Newcastle City Council

 

Nick Forbes (Lab), leader, Newcastle City Council

 

“The idea of an English parliament is nonsense on stilts. From a Newcastle perspective, it would simply replicate all of the problems of the current system – removal of decision-making, lack of engagement and democratic participation and, from a political perspective, [it would be] likely to be dominated by Tories from the south.

“What we would like and what we know makes sense are powers and responsibilities in three broad areas: economic development and growth; skills; and transport.

“I think the only game in town is combined authorities … I think they give the sufficient clout, scale, and massing required to provide a skeleton around which a devolutionary offer can be built.

“There’s a genuine issue to resolve around the speed and nature of the devolutionary offer any government can make. Some people, including me, think you should go where the energy is and enable them to be trailblazers.

“Other people have the view we should move at the speed of the slowest. Either way, it’s clear the tensions that nearly fractured the union are simmering in England.”

 

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