The Labour leader of Newcastle City Council has issued a blunt challenge to party colleagues - with a warning that Conservatives are more willing to devolve power to local authorities than his own party.
Council leader Nick Forbes told a meeting of activists during Labour’s Brighton conference that Britain’s great cities could help drive economic growth, if they were given more freedom. But he said Conservative Government Ministers showed more support for Newcastle’s hopes of seizing more power than Labour’s Shadow Ministers.
Coun Forbes said Labour had to change its attitude before the next general election.
Speaking at a conference fringe meeting, he said big cities outside the South East played a vital role in the nation’s economy.
But he said: “It is ironic that when we talk about growth in London it is considered national growth but when we talk about growth in our cities and provinces it is considered local growth. It is all growth. And yet what we have is one of the most centralised policy environments of any country in the world.
“It’s surely ironic that cities in Communist China have more flexibilities and freedoms than cities in England do.”
Cities like Newcastle would benefit from the creation of a single pot of funding - instead of being forced to apply to dozens of different ringfenced schemes as they do now, he said.
“When you get lots and lots of strings attached you end up with puppets. And what we don’t want is simply local government to be puppets of the state,” Coun Forbes said.
And he called for councils to be allowed to set up their own treasuries, which would have the power to raise taxes.
Coun Forbes said: “If we had a more devolved set of powers, if we had a more localised approach to the co-ordination of finances, the prize would be a more sustainable economy, one built on the skills and talents that we have in different areas - because not each area of the country is the same - and one which can more easily weather the economic storms that caused such huge damage to our economy in the last half decade or so.”
Labour councils were ready to take charge - but they were not getting enough support from Labour shadow ministers at a national level, he said.
“It is surely of great concern to us, the Labour Party, that there are more Tory Ministers that get this agenda than there are shadow ministers.
“So we have to make sure we win the fight for devolution and greater reform at a local level in advance of the next general election manifesto.”
Coun Forbes also launched an outspoken attack on bus companies - saying they ripped off passengers.
He said: “Frankly bus companies are ripping us off and making massive profits out of the travelling public.
“And I think there are huge savings to be made by having a better regulated bus system which serves our rural areas in particular well, and where there buses aren’t just once service an hour but a properly geared to peoples travel-to-work times.”