Jo Cox wrote this piece in today’s Yorkshire Post to coincide with the publication of a report on devolution by the Communities and Local Government select committee, of which she is a member.
BRITAIN is one of the most centralised countries in the world. While local and regional authorities in Germany and France control up to 80 per cent of government spending, 72 per cent of all UK public expenditure is directly controlled by David Cameron and his ministers in Whitehall. This is not only bad for democracy, it’s inefficient and stifles local innovation and regional growth.
The devolution deals under discussion up and down the country, not least here in the North, offer a rare chance to secure meaningful reform that could radically alter our economic, political and constitutional landscape for years to come. This is a huge opportunity for Yorkshire and I’m a firm believer that shifting power from Whitehall – and closer to the people it affects – is a good thing. But it has to be something we get right.
To date, the Governments record is mixed: we’ve had welcome prominence given to this agenda but there’s been a heavy dose of hyperbole and lots of inconsistency.
It is sadly telling that in the same week that my Select Committee publishes a new report on devolution the Government announced the closure their much lauded ‘northern powerhouse’ office in Sheffield and moved all the jobs to London. And while the Chancellor talks of devolving power, we are seeing more schools taken out of local control to be managed by Whitehall and the Government’s Housing Bill includes dozens of new centralising measures.
What’s clear is that Government policy on this issue is hugely significant for the Yorkshire economy and potentially could have a beneficial impact on people and businesses in constituencies such as mine.
However, there are five key areas of concern.
Firstly, the devolution deals in the pipeline should be the starting point, not the destination. They should be a first step towards a much more ambitious transfer of powers and responsibilities out from Whitehall. Devolution should now be the default setting across all Government departments.
Secondly, there needs to be far better engagement with the public to get this right. Consulting people about a deal after that deal has been struck is too late. Devolution is a huge, constitutional shift. It will reverberate massively on the economics and politics of the areas in question. Communities will see new structures, have new responsibilities and in some places, new elected mayors.
People need to understand what is happening, why and who will be responsible for what. Ultimately, they should see how these changes will benefit them and have a chance to shape them.
Thirdly, fiscal devolution is not on the table. It should be. While some of the proposals do represent a seismic change to the way local authorities are funded – for example 100 per cent retention of the growth in business rates and a new social care precept – the detail remains troublingly scant and it is clear the headline announcement belies the complexity and uncertainty this change brings.
There are huge benefits for some authorities but the potential for great risk for others. Why not be bold? Give councils the means to nurture economic growth, improve productivity and become more sustainable.
They need funding settlements to help them plan, not worry about where their funding will come from in four years. Instead of half measures the Government should be looking at handing down powers to raise revenue, vary business rates or add higher and lower council tax bands.
Fourthly, the Government has been vague in setting out clear, measurable objectives on their devolution agenda. Without this, it is almost impossible to judge success or failure. I worry also that many of the Government’s objectives are not aligned with those of local authorities. To correct this there should be far better engagement, clear goals, more transparency and mechanisms to monitor and assess progress.
And finally, this transfer of power does not – and should not stop – with institutions of government. It should be filtering right down to our communities and citizens. Swapping decision- making in one room full of politicians and civil servants in Whitehall to a different room full of politicians and civil servants in a town hall is not good enough.
We must find new ways to hand power to members of communities, workers on the frontline and those who use the services being provided. Open the process up to local people, trust them and allow them to participate in decision-making and scrutiny and perhaps start to rebuild faith and confidence in politics and in government.
Devolution should not be cover for the devolution of cuts or the delegation of powers. It has to be real and meaningful if our region, local businesses and the economy are to reap the potential rewards. To do this we must be bold and not let this chance pass us by.
You can read the report by clicking here or the image at the top of this article