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Devolution and Growth Across Britain

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:57 pm on 3rd June 2015.

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Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman The Second Church Estates Commissioner 2:57 pm, 3rd June 2015

I welcome Michelle Thomson, who shares with me the pleasure of having an airport in her constituency. I hope that she will forgive hon. Members, as I do, if they use her airport. I have definitely been through her constituency on many occasions in order to visit my family roots.

Representing a constituency in the west midlands conurbation, I have watched as Manchester and Leeds-Bradford have benefited from their collaboration, and I hope to see the councils in my area come together of their own free will to create a midlands powerhouse.

It is clear that trying to run the country from Whitehall has failed. The Government’s approach to devolution has the advantage that it does not impose a structure, as was the case with the regional development agencies, but lets the authorities choose who they want to work with. That is the key to the success of the local economic partnerships, and the one covering my area of Greater Birmingham and Solihull has been particularly successful. The old RDA’s actions resulted in money being sucked into Birmingham, with other surrounding authorities losing out. In a spirit of co-operation, I encourage Mr Umunna to temper his views about the positive impression of RDAs by speaking to his colleagues from Coventry, who felt that they really lost out under Advantage West Midlands.

The sheer size of Birmingham City Council has been the sticking point for further collaboration. As the Kerslake report of December 2014 puts it, its size is

“both a badge and a barrier” to its progress, and it faces

“significant budget difficulties…and does not yet have credible plans to meet these”.

It is no wonder that there is a degree of reluctance to combine.

The key to harmony in the Birmingham and Solihull LEP is the “one authority, one vote” policy for its governance structure. I believe that an explicit reference to that in the forthcoming Bill would give smaller local authorities the reassurance that they seek. The approach taken by Greater Manchester authorities of giving each authority a veto on sensitive policy areas such as housing and planning will also be key for councils such as mine. My area contains some of the most valuable regional and, indeed, national assets, including Birmingham airport and the National Exhibition Centre. There is also the Meriden Gap between Coventry and Birmingham, without which the area would simply be concreted over. Birmingham’s willingness to give itself one vote on decisions, thus placing itself on a par with the smaller metropolitan and shire districts, will give other councils the confidence to join.

I am not totally convinced about the establishment of a “metro mayor” for the midlands powerhouse. Rivalries between the towns and cities are intense, not least on the football pitch. I am thinking of, for instance, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Coventry, to name just a few. Perhaps, however, a smaller local authority could take the lead.

I was interested to read that healthcare might be granted to the new combined authorities as a competency, and I think that would be helpful. It would also speed up the integration of health and social care at local level. Solihull is certainly keen to be in the vanguard, given its coterminous boundaries.

As for education, there is a great opportunity to devolve more powers and to achieve fairer funding. Let me be specific. Solihull educates more than 7,000 pupils from across its borders in Birmingham and Coventry, and the funding gap has increased to £1,300 per pupil. Solihull schools enjoy an excellent reputation, and parents want their children to benefit from it, but the funding shortfall is now having adverse consequences. For example, schools in Birmingham are poaching Solihull’s teachers with a premium payment of several thousand pounds, which Solihull cannot match. As a result of the funding differential, head teachers are struggling to manage without cutting staff and other vital services.

Surely the health principle of the money following the patient should apply to education as well. The pupils who attract higher per capita funding because of where they live should be able to bring that funding with them to the place where they are educated. That is an easier principle to deliver than the wholesale change in the funding formula—which, incidentally, I support, but which will create both winners and losers. In a reductio ad absurdum, Birmingham would have to build at least six new schools for the pupils whom Solihull currently educates, which would be a very inefficient use of taxpayers’ money.

Some important considerations are necessary when it comes to this level of devolution. Lord Heseltine was right to point out in his report “No Stone Unturned” that our country is held back by its over-centralised structure. Devolution will bring diversification. It will not be possible to cry “postcode lottery”.

I welcome the principles of the devolution Bill. I believe that our great city should seize the opportunity to take new powers to better meet the needs of its citizens.