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Devolution and Growth Across Britain

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:05 pm on 3rd June 2015.

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Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield South East 3:05 pm, 3rd June 2015

I, too, congratulate the Deputy Speakers, and congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your re-election. I also congratulate the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who I see is present. In the last Parliament, as planning Minister, he showed great willingness to listen to recommendations from the Select Committee, which I chaired, and to accept our proposals and amendments. I that we can establish a similar relationship if I am re-elected as Chair of the Committee in this Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman has not only a principled commitment to devolution but a track record on it—which I think is recognised by Members on both sides of the House—as well as being willing to look for solutions that meet local needs, in the true spirit of devolution.

Let me begin by raising two issues relating to what the Government have proposed so far. The first was raised in an earlier debate by one of my hon. Friends, who challenged the Government to explain why, if we were really serious about devolving functions to communities and their elected representatives at local level, we had to tell those representatives how the arrangements should best be governed. Why must we insist on an elected mayor to enable powers to be devolved to combined authorities? Many communities may decide that elected mayors are the best way forward. Why are the Government saying, “If you do not have our version of governance at local level, you cannot have devolved powers in the first place”? That is not typical of the right hon. Gentleman’s track record. When he was responsible for city deals, he was prepared to tailor arrangements at local level, in discussions with councils, in order to meet specific needs. Can we not have a rethink about that?

As for the second issue—and I challenge my hon. Friend Mr Umunna on this—why are the Government committed to devolving spending powers? Why are they prepared to trust local communities with the right to spend money and make decisions in that regard, but not prepared to trust them with the right to raise taxes in the first place? Why is something that is good for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland not good for England as well? What is wrong with extending the principle? The Government have been reluctant to do that, and my party’s Front Benchers have been somewhat reluctant to do it as well.

There is cross-party support for such a move. I see that my hon. Friend Simon Danczuk and Mark Pawsey are present. They were both members of the Select Committee in the last Parliament. We produced a report on fiscal devolution to local government in England that received widespread support. The Local Government Association adopted it, and, along with the London Finance Commission, the Mayor of London—who I see in a reincarnated form as Boris Johnson— produced very similar proposals.

The Front Benchers do not seem to understand that if we are to have real devolution in this country, it cannot simply be a matter of central Government handing out largesse and then reducing it, thus passing the responsibility for cuts to local authorities. That is not real devolution at all. Let us go a bit further, and be a bit braver. Does the Secretary of State not have an instinct—a real passion—to be the Secretary of State who delivers real devolution to England as well as to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Let me raise a third issue during my six minutes. I am passionate about housing. We must start to build a quarter of a million homes to meet demand, and I think that we shall have to spend some more Government money. We must remove the borrowing cap that restricts councils’ ability to spend. Housing associations are struggling as a result of the cuts in the amount of money that they have per unit of development. Many of them are not taking up social housing grant, as they did before; I think there was a shortfall in the last financial year.

I understand the Government’s commitment to build more on brownfield sites, but the problems with paragraphs 47 and 49 of the national planning policy framework and the issues of which the Secretary of State is aware from his previous role as planning Minister—the challenge regarding definitions of viability—are affecting local authorities’ ability to include brownfield sites in their local plan. The speech contains a proposal on the right to buy that the National Housing Federation says will cost £11 billion. We cannot trust the Government on that, because the intended one-for-one replacement of houses sold simply has not happened. According to the very best estimates, about one house has been built for every 10 sold.

The Government are going to take private assets into public control. They will direct private companies and charities on how to use their assets. If they do that, are they nationalising those assets and taking their debts on to the Government’s books? Have they looked at the report from the Office for National Statistics on whether they will include the entire debt of housing associations in Government debt? Have they listened to the National Housing Federation, which called for a review of this policy? Its members say that the concerns about the future of their finances, the right to buy, welfare reform, the rise in rent arrears and the introduction of universal credit are taking them to a place where they do not feel comfortable about developing in the future. This policy has not been thought through. It is a real challenge to the future viability and independence of housing associations, and it will affect whether they develop in the future. That matter of concern needs addressing.