Ed Miliband’s announcement last week of wholesale devolution for the English regions shows that Labour recognises and is responding to the growing consensus that power needs to be spread across the country.
First, the Adonis report recommended the North-east Combined Authority receive control over full revenue from business rates. Second, just last week, the City Growth Commission report said London, Manchester and West Yorkshire may be ready for devolution and the North East is fast developing the process to take advantage of devolution. Third, add to this the Core Cities’ powerful campaign with the London boroughs, and the call for devolution is now deafening.
Miliband’s announcement adds fuel to the fire and is a welcome commitment that if he were prime minister then the reins of power would be loosened and handed over to Britain’s towns and cities. I welcome these proposals as another significant step along the road to devolution.
What is most striking is that the proposals recognise there is a need for a new relationship between local and national government. An English regional cabinet committee which includes senior secretaries of state as well as local authority leaders is a major step forward. It will give added impetus to existing combined authorities and encourage councils that have not done so to join with neighbouring authorities.
In particular I welcome the move to enable councils to take control of local bus services. We are already leading the way on this in Tyne and Wear with our Quality Contracts Scheme which will provide lower average fares – with future rises capped to the cost of living – cheap travel for young people and a universal smart ticket as good as Oyster in London. At the same time it will save the taxpayer money while protecting the routes and concessions which people rely on, because it will see more of the profits of the big bus companies now make put back into efficient, attractive local services. The coalition has made it as hard as possible for us to bring about these changes. In contrast, in recognising the role of councils in coordinating good quality public transport for their communities, Labour is promising all areas of the country, not just London, will benefit from excellent bus services.
The devolution juggernaut is now hurtling down the road. But devolution without financial reform of local government is meaningless, as there will be nothing left for government to devolve to. It is ironic that David Cameron has backed needs-based funding for Scotland, through the Barnett formula, but has stripped out funding based on need in England. Local government in England and Wales must continue to make the case for a fair approach to the allocation of resources. Labour is the only party committed to fairer funding settlements and recognition of need.
So the greater powers and financial freedoms for cities and regions set out by Ed Miliband will help set citizens free from a sense of hopelessness and neglect. They will allow us to grow our own economies – boosting the national economy in an increasingly competitive world. They will help us transform our public services, getting efficiencies through more effective planning and coordination. And they will help us reinvigorate local democracy, connecting local people much more closely to decisions that affect them. It is now time for England’s cities and regions to take the reins of power so we can shape our own destinies.
Nick Forbes is leader of Newcastle city council
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