The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill reached the House of Commons today, and we were finally given clarity about the position of the Labour frontbench – namely, a reasoned amendment to refuse a Second Reading to the Bill. The primary justification within the amendment is that “the Bill does not offer meaningful devolution to England and would leave behind England’s town, county and shire regions, ignores the will of the people by imposing mayors as a condition of devolution, threatens the financial stability of local government by not offering a fair funding settlement.” While I’m sure each of these concerns is genuine, the amendment ultimately conflates the measures contained within the Cities and Local Government Bill with both the specifics of deals and the broader fiscal policies of the Government.
Let’s look at each of the points above in turn – first the idea that the Bill does not offer “meaningful devolution”. Here the amendment has confused the fact that the Bill itself does not identify a list of specific policies that will be devolved as a signal that it doesn’t allow for the devolution of anything at all. In fact, the opposite is the case. The Bill is deliberately a generic and enabling piece of legislation that essentially allows for the devolution of almost anything – housing, health, welfare, policing and more – to a local level, and allows for different settlements to be reached in different places depending on local appetite and capacity. In this sense, it provides a framework through which devolution deals can be agreed between national and local politicians. The limit on devolution under the model will be the willingness and ability of local and national politicians to reach agreement on what will be included.
Second, what about the notion of “imposing mayors as a condition of devolution”? Again, the amendment suggests that the Bill prescribes a specific kind of devolution for all places, where the reality is that all the Bill allows for is a single democratically accountable leader to be elected for combined authority areas – something which is not possible under the law as it stands. That the Government, in its negotiations with individual places, is insisting upon certain kinds of governance structures in exchange for certain powers is a policy decision rather than being required as a result of the Bill. Further, suggesting in this context that mayors have been imposed on the likes of Greater Manchester or the Sheffield City Region risks doing a significant disservice to the decisions that local leaders have taken in those places to strike devolution deals. If Labour had intended to oppose this policy condition (one held by the Government for some time), there are other forums through which it could have done so – perhaps most obviously by working more closely with locally elected politicians to put forward a coherent and unified alternative approach.
Third, what about the objection that this Bill does not define a “fair funding settlement” – or in more common parlance, that it is about devolving cuts, not powers? Once again, this objection conflates the tough local government funding settlement anticipated to be part of the Comprehensive Spending Review, with a Bill that seeks to do no more than provide new models of governance that can allow places to take on more powers in the future. That devolution deals to date have not featured substantial amounts of additional funding for local government is not as a result of this piece of legislation, and should instead be part of a broader policy debate regarding austerity and public sector retrenchment.
In a broader context, Labour concerns that there is no real devolution of financial powers are blunted by the Government’s recent announcement to devolve business rates to local government – although the policy details do need more debate and discussion for the implications to be fully understood.
Ultimately the amendment, together with Jon Trickett’s statement on the Bill, revealed that the Labour frontbench doesn’t oppose the Cities Bill as such, but rather the entire fiscal approach of the Government – calling instead for a comprehensive approach to devolution, buttressed by large scale national and local consultation. The challenge Trickett has, and one that was raised by a number of fellow Labour MPs such as Clive Betts and Graham Stringer, is that by seeking to derail the Bill, all that will be achieved is the undoing of the progress made by local (often Labour) city leaders to take on more powers that could make a real difference to the lives of their residents. In other words, stopping the Bill won’t stop there being a tight local government settlement, but it will constrain the ability of places to respond to it, and to grow their economy in the future.
Interventions from members of their own party – alongside the fact that many local Labour leaders have helped to shape the Bill – should give Trickett and others in Labour’s top team pause for thought, as they contemplate the forthcoming debates on the legislation. The Cities Bill isn’t perfect, but it does have the capacity, bolstered with enough cross-party support at a local level, to deliver real devolution to UK cities and city-regions across the country. We mustn’t let this opportunity be missed.