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Devolution and Growth Across Britain

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:41 pm on 3rd June 2015.

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Photo of Geoffrey Robinson Geoffrey Robinson Labour, Coventry North West 3:41 pm, 3rd June 2015

I have very limited time, but it is appropriate to say what a pleasure it is to hear so many maiden speeches in the House, as we have over the past few days. Far too many have been from Opposition Members who are not Labour Members. What we have heard in quality from Labour Members has more than made up for the noticeable lack of quantity. I compliment my new hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock, who made a remarkable speech. He brings a fine tradition not just of Labour representation, but of family representation. I am delighted to see family representation both on the Opposition Benches and elsewhere in the Chamber. I should also mention my new hon. Friend Colleen Fletcher, who made her maiden speech yesterday—it, too, was a remarkable speech. I am pleased to compliment her on her joining us in the House.

If I may be very sharp, direct and to the point—I am sure you will appreciate that, Mr Speaker—we are talking about devolution in principle. The worrying thing is that we do not yet have a clear idea what the Government have in mind. If the House will forgive me for saying so, they are adopting the position of the whore through the centuries—the phrase was used to describe the British press about 100 years ago. We do not know what the Government want, yet they will use their huge influence and power over local authorities but take no responsibility for what emerges. The likely outcome is that they will create a bigger muddle than the one they are trying to sort out—a cumulative muddle from successive reform attempts, starting with the right hon. Edward Heath and his Government back in 1970. They issued a diktat for a total strategic reorganisation of local government, which, as some Members may remember, ended in the total muddle that we are living with today.

We need to know why the Government are obsessed with the idea of metro mayors. The Minister did not answer pointed and good questions from my hon. Friend Mr Umunna. He refused to answer or was incapable of answering the question of what the real position of metro mayor will be. What are their powers? We need a clear description of those powers. We need to know what the alternatives to those powers are.

Coventry is in an invidious position. It is already linked to, and has developed limited strategic arrangements with, Warwickshire, most notably through the local enterprise partnership, which the Government set up by way of an inadequate substitute for Advantage West Midlands, which Opposition Members have regretted many times in the past five years. We nevertheless have that LEP, but it will be cut in half, because half of its responsibilities are in Warwickshire and half in Coventry. Where does it stand? What are the alternatives? I want to put this directly to the Minister to see whether he can answer. What are the chances of having a Coventry and Warwickshire strategic or combined authority—we can use whatever term we want, but “combined authority” is the most acceptable in Coventry at this stage? Which powers would that authority gain from the Government? Does it need a mayor?

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government must be aware that, barely three years ago, we had referendums in no fewer than 11 cities throughout England and Wales. Only one city—I think it was Bristol—decided in favour of a mayor. In the other cities, most notably in Birmingham and Coventry, the idea was resoundingly rejected by the electorate. Now it has been put to us again, quite insidiously, by the Government. This came out at a meeting that he attended earlier this week with the leaders of the midlands powerhouse, which is how the Government are attempting to describe us.

Manchester has a totally different set of circumstances, and the authorities that are coming together in the northern powerhouse are very different from Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Three cities will be included in the new midlands powerhouse, which is another difference. I am prepared to say that the whole idea serves a useful purpose in giving us all a kick up the backside to get on with things. Indeed, that is the message that the Secretary of State brought to the midlands, but nobody knows what we are meant to get on with. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Mr Jones is actively promoting in the west midlands the concept of a Coventry-Warwickshire combined authority, which will stand in its own right and will represent 1 million people. What sort of backing can we expect from the Government? What sort of powers are the Government prepared to devolve to the new authority? That question will not go away, and we need an answer before we go any further down the route.

If we go down the route of the combined authority with the other six authorities, which the Secretary of State met during his visit this week, do we have to have a metro mayor? Why is he being so prescriptive about that one aspect? He quite rightly says that we should go with the grain and that we should encourage local governments to come up with their own ideas and find their own solutions. On the other hand, he says that no solution will be acceptable unless it has one critical element, which is the metro mayor. But that idea has already been rejected by the electorate of Birmingham and Coventry. Can the Minister be clear on that? Can the Government step back a bit and get rid of this feeling that they can exercise this huge power and influence and yet not take any responsibility for what emerges? The danger is that we have another top-down reorganisation inflicted on the region, which will create an even bigger mess. Clearly, the Government must come clean on what they are offering.