Labour’s devolution efforts were ‘hamstrung by one-size-fits-all approach’

28 Sep 16

Former Labour minister John Healey has said that devolution under the last Labour government was “hamstrung” by efforts to develop proposals that could apply across the whole country.

The former Treasury and local government minister was speaking at a fringe event hosted by Core Cities UK, London Councils and the Mayor of London’s office at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool.

He said the current government had got the approach right by deciding to “work with the willing”.

He stated: “We actually hamstrung ourselves in our period in government when we looked at devolution, because we felt we needed to have a blueprint that was consistent right across the country.

“But eventually it won’t work, it can’t work, in the same way in all parts. We got too hung up on institutional arrangements, geographical footprints. The case we should make needs to concentrate on what we most want to change, be determined to do it and then make the case for the devolution that helps us do us.”

Healey said that his political imperative would be to show how a Labour council and a Labour-led city makes a difference and can reach devolution deals with Whitehall “rather than try to come up with a plan that is all encompassing, which I think is part of the problem that we had for a lot of the time we were in government”.

Also speaking at the event, Tony Travers from the London School of Economics set out the work of the London Finance Commission, which has been reconvened by mayor of London Sadiq Khan.

He said that the commission was looking to publish an interim report on possible fiscal devolution to the capital before the Autumn Statement on 23 November, with a final report expected by the end of the year.

The review would consider the full range of fiscal powers that could be devolved to London, not just the property taxes that were the focus of the first review in 2013, he said. Its conclusions would not only apply to London: “As we move to having more directly elected city region mayors, then the dynamics of that begin to pick up devolution in more cities as well.”

Judith Blake, the leader of Leeds City Council and chair of the Core Cities cabinet, set out the progress that has been made in agreeing a devolution deal for the city. It has not reached an agreement with government yet. Deals are in place in Greater Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham and Liverpool and the Tees Valley, while although a proposal for the North East Combined Authority has been rejected by four of the seven councils.

Blake highlighted at the meeting the difficulty of replicating the devolution structures agreed in Greater Manchester across the country.

She said that former chancellor George Osborne, who insisted on directly elected mayors for devolution similar to the post agreed for Manchester city region, “didn’t anticipate the difficulty”.

The Greater Manchester model doesn’t work for different communities and geographies across the country, she said.

“So Leeds City Region is committed to getting a deal but we haven’t been successful, as we feel for us in the geography that we have, that having a directly elected mayor is problematic.

“Theresa May has suggested she is relaxing that requirement and we are in direct conversations along with many other areas across the country to come up with a different form of governance to help us get deals across the line.”

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