There is a danger when debating devolution of being sucked into discussions about systems, processes and boundaries, whereas what matters is outcomes in localities.
I prefer to frame the debate as one about decentralisation in one of the most centralised countries in Europe. And the prime duty we have, if we are to acknowledge and deal with varying local needs and local opportunities in the economy, the environment and social provision, is to ensure that local government is strengthened and enabled to work effectively with central government and its agencies.
I have long been in interested in the problems of the North East and of what became known as regional policy.
I was the anonymous architect of the North Regional Councils Association, now ANEC, in the 80s – anonymous because while there is a strong sense of regional identity the North East was then, and to an extent still is, somewhat tribal, and a visibly Newcastle-led initiative might have been strangled at birth.
I also served on Lord Prescott’s Regional Policy group in the 90s and regret that the Labour Government did not adopt its more ambitious proposals, which was perhaps partly responsible for the failure to secure support for an elected regional body in the referendum of 2004.
But perhaps more relevantly I was involved with the LGA in developing the concept of Total Place, the idea that councils should lead partnerships in which the totality of public spending for an area could be brought together, with government departments and agencies, local councils and their directorates getting out of their silo based approach to policy and service delivery.
In that way they would be much more strategic and effective, with the added potential bonus of generating efficiencies by sharing services.
To its credit the Labour Government adopted the idea, with the Treasury being particularly supportive, alongside DCLG. Sadly other departments were not similarly engaged, and progress was slow, with little evidence of any enthusiasm for the concept in the last four years.
There have been some welcome initiatives, for example city deals, but little in the way of bringing together such programmes as health, welfare, education, including further and higher education, housing, transport and others which, in addition to economic development need to be marshalled if the problems our communities face are to be effectively addressed.
The creation of combined authorities, with Greater Manchester leading the way, offers a potentially powerful mechanism to drive part of this agenda.
But while it seems obvious, for example. that the Highways Agency should be accountable to the authorities in the different areas in which it operates, that and other public services and agencies should be part of the total place partnerships, there are two critical requirements without which decentralisation will fail.
The present government has deliberately off-loaded responsibilities to local authorities, for example in the area of council tax support, without the necessary financial resources – a process I have labelled passing the buck without passing the bucks.
Moreover they have deliberately skewed the system of local government finance to impose much larger reductions in grant on predominantly urban authorities.
This has led to huge and disproportionate cuts not only for the North and Midlands, but also inner London boroughs like Newham, Lambeth and Hackney, and coastal towns like Great Yarmouth, Hastings and Blackpool, with devastating consequences for essential services.
Merely passing tax-raising and tax collecting powers to local councils will avail little if the tax base is inadequate. The grant system must be based on need, in an English version of the Barnett formula. And there should be minimum national entitlements to key services – not the minimal entitlements which we are rapidly approaching.
We need to redress the profound inequalities which disfigure our society, and hamper our efforts to grow the economy in a globalised, competitive world.
We need to restore hope to a generation of young people and to communities where too many lives are stunted by poverty, ill-health and a sense of being neglected. Power and resources must be restored to democratically elected local government in partnership with central government.
To facilitate these developments, and to ensure genuinely cross-government involvement, we should restore a regional presence for Government itself.
The Conservative Government in the 80s established regional offices, eventually involving most key departments, which became an invaluable two-way conduit for concerns, information and dialogue between localities and the centre.
The present government abolished them along with the regional development agencies, a piece of politically inspired vandalism which has greatly weakened the intelligence base of individual departments and the capacity to harness resources across the board.
The changes I advocate seek to address the real problems we face, not the political gamesmanship of English votes for English laws. It is an agenda of decentralisation and partnership. Call it devolution if you must, but let’s get on with it.
- Lord Beecham is a Labour Newcastle city councillor and former council leader. This is taken from a speech he gave in the House of Lords.