Category Archives: Northern Powerhouse

Jo Cox: Five lessons Yorkshire must learn on devolution

The report into devolutionJo 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

Jo Cox: George Osborne’s perfect storm to batter North

Published today by the Yorkshire Post

In one fell swoop, the Chancellor has created a perfect storm for Northern councils. It is one that many of our local authorities will struggle to withstand.

In spite of George Osborne’s rhetoric, his Autumn Statement missed an opportunity for real and meaningful fiscal devolution to local authorities. Instead, he offered two traps that will impact every corner of the North.

First, the local government grant, which provides the largest component of council funding, will be scrapped. Councils will instead retain all of the business rates that they raise.

Although welcome in principle, without a built-in redistributive element it’s hard to see how this will do anything other than reinforce existing inequalities between North and South.

The current system takes account of local circumstances and ensures a fairer distribution of funds from central government. Remove Whitehall from the equation completely and we’re left facing a Darwinian nightmare where the strongest, richest councils will survive and prosper, while the rest, and more importantly the vulnerable people they care for, are left out in the cold.

In the case of Kirklees, my own council, the funding gap left by these changes is estimated at more than £30m annually. In comparison, Westminster Council’s budget will increase 10-fold.

We urgently need to know how the redistributive safeguards hinted at by the Government will work otherwise Northern councils could be left with a huge funding shortfall.

Secondly, the Chancellor has given councils the power to raise council tax by two per cent for social care. The Government estimates that this will raise £2bn by 2020 – a figure dwarfed by the Local Government Association’s estimate that the funding gap for adult social care will have hit a staggering £7.9bn by then.

In addition, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says there is no way the Government can actually guarantee money raised from this precept be spent on social care, while the Social Market Foundation’s warning is more stark. They say that the social care precept will mean plenty of additional resources for councils in the South, but much less for many councils in the North.

Councils with higher elderly populations and high, complex adult social care needs will suffer disproportionately. Disparities in health, age and need are being disregarded.

For Kirklees, the two per cent precept would raise just £2.8m a year. Overall, the council estimates that the consequences of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement will be an overall cut of 20 to 30 per cent by 2017. This is on top of the cuts of that they have had to cope with since 2010.

Councils in the most deprived areas with the greatest social care needs will raise less than a third of more affluent areas. Those who rely most on the government funding will be least able to meet the needs they have through council tax rises. If you want to exacerbate the crisis in social care, this is how to do it.

There is also a broader problem that this policy does not confront.

The Conservative MP and GP Sarah Woollaston, chairman of the Health Select Committee, says we cannot have the Government’s seven-day NHS without ensuring social care is properly funded. In fact, she says, the fate of the NHS rests with social care. The link between the two is crucial and the two need to be treated on equal terms. Wrap around care, addressing delays with discharges from hospitals and tackling bed blocking are all dependent on a system of social care that is fit to cope.

Rather than pinning council tax increases on local authorities, the Government need to take positive action to fund and plan for social care for the next several decades.

Both these polices are traps for Northern councils and are part of a package of devolution that ties one hand behind our backs. These are not good deals as currently devised – especially for councils with a low tax base and high needs. Councils will be forced to take further difficult choices about cuts to vital local services, raise council tax or most likely do both.

I hope the intent that we can see in the Chancellor’s latest devolution offer serves as a stark warning to all of those in Yorkshire who are working towards meaningful devolution. And there is the challenge for those of us who care deeply about devolution: we have to find a way to make this work – in spite of George Osborne.

Jo Cox is Labour MP for Batley & Spen and a member of the Communities and Local Government select committee.

Assurances on train upgrades welcomed

Batley & Spen MP Jo Cox has welcomed assurances that rail commuters locally will see a huge difference in the quality of their trains by 2020.

Mrs Cox sought and received assurances from the West Yorkshire Combined Authority that rolling stock presently in use will be replaced and upgraded and that the old Pacer trains, which have been on local lines for the best part of 30 years, will be decommissioned.

Mrs Cox said: “The present rolling stock is old, uncomfortable and there isn’t nearly enough of it. I am very pleased to hear that by 2020 we will see the end of the Pacers, replaced by more modern, refurbished trains as well as new ones.

“Rail investment is not only important for commuters but it is also key to growing our regional economy. The government’s so called Northern Powerhouse agenda may have stalled but we must ensure that the north, and Yorkshire in particular, can grow and prosper.

“Better trains and electrification of the Transpennine route are integral parts of this and I am delighted we have been able to overcome Government resistance and secure commitments on both.”

Mrs Cox was one of a number of Yorkshire MPs who forced the Government to backtrack on plans to delay electrification indefinitely. The plans, promised by the government before the election but shelved immediately afterwards, will now go ahead but with significant delays.

Mrs Cox met with a director of the authority last week.

Cautious welcome for news electrification back on track

First TransPennine ExpressFollowing news of the Government u-turn on electrification of the Transpennine rail line, Batley & Spen MP Jo Cox, who led demands for the project to be reinstated, said:

“I am delighted that the government has finally bowed to pressure and reinstated the commitment to rail electrification for the Transpennine line. However the battle is not yet won.

“This announcement, although welcome, still represents a long delay on the original plan. I hope this is not a drop kick into the long grass for a much needed investment, with more pauses to come.

“Also I would still like to see more, such as a move to increase capacity and have a proper plan to get rid of inadequate Pacers.”

Mrs Cox tabled a Parliamentary motion demanding the Government reinstate the electrification plans.

MPs urged to back Yorkshire Post rail campaign

JC_080715_Gaza3The Yorkshire Post’s Back On Track campaign has received parliamentary backing.

Batley & Spen MP Jo Cox has tabled a motion in the Commons welcoming the campaign and echoing its call for the Government to reinstate plans to electrify the TransPennine and Midland Mainline routes.

The motion also demands ministers inform MPs precisely when they knew about Network Rail’s plans to shelve the electrification projects.

Mrs Cox is now urging Yorkshire MPs and colleagues across the north to back the motion and the YP’s campaign in order to force a debate in the Commons.

The Labour MP said: “The Yorkshire Post campaign speaks with one voice for the Yorkshire MPs, businesses, commuters and others who are outraged that after all the pre-election promises, electrification has since been shelved indefinitely.

“This decision undermines the Government’s so called northern powerhouse agenda and its commitment to helping boost the northern economy. It has an impact on many people and businesses across Yorkshire and the north and needs to be resolved urgently.

“Network Rail appears to have known in March that the plans would be shelved. It is inconceivable that ministers were not aware, even though they continued to repeat the promise during the election campaign. It is unacceptable that these questions remain unanswered.

“We want the schemes back on track, we want to know when work will start and we want to know what ministers knew, and when.”

The motion is now live for MPs to sign.

Mrs Cox, whose constituency is served by the TransPennine route, added: “In the last year India has electrified 850 miles of track, yet our Transport Secretary is quibbling about 40 miles from Leeds to Manchester. It’s simply not good enough.”