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Devolution and Growth Across Britain

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:24 pm on 3rd June 2015.

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Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst 4:24 pm, 3rd June 2015

It falls to me to lower the tone, after the pleasure of listening to two excellent maiden speeches, from my hon. Friend Wendy Morton and Helen Hayes. They both paid admirable tribute to their predecessors. Sir Richard Shepherd was an old friend of many of us and was well regarded and much loved across this House. Dame Tessa Jowell was somebody I knew and worked with in London politics for a long time. I wish Sir Richard well in his retirement; I wish Dame Tessa well in most of her retirement, which I hope will be a suitably restful one. They both deserve it, and I am delighted to welcome their successors to the House. They both bring great experience, from the voluntary sector and business in my hon. Friend’s case and from local government in the hon. Lady’s case. I know that they will be of great value. I ought to say to the hon. Lady that Chislehurst now brands itself as the new Dulwich. With the development of local plans, if she could simply source me a picture gallery, we will be well away.

At all events, I very much welcome the content of the Queen’s Speech, particularly the measures for devolution, which give me an opportunity to say the final thing I wanted to say by way of welcome, which is to the new Communities and Local Government ministerial team, most of whom, at any rate, are on the Front Bench, and to the Secretary of State in absentia. I know every one of them to be committed localists and people who understand local government. Many of them have a direct track record in local government and are taking on what I promise them from experience is a very worthwhile job indeed. I wish them well. The Secretary of State was a great colleague when I was in government and he will be a great friend to local government, because he is a genuine and committed localiser.

I would not want this opportunity to pass without making a reference to the Secretary of State’s predecessor. My right hon. Friend Mr Pickles was a transformational Secretary of State, who started on the work of localism and devolution, under difficult financial circumstances, and put in place the initial, critical building blocks that we can now take forward, with proposals such as the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill and the housing Bill. I very much welcome the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. It is logical that if we are looking to have devolution within the constituent parts of the United Kingdom it must be balanced with proper devolution to the English local authorities, which are potentially great drivers of growth, wealth and social enterprise in our country.

I welcome what is in the Bill. I would gently say that I hope that that, too, is a starting point, because not only must we have the sort of legislative devolution to the major cities and the combined authorities that we have seen; we must also have real fiscal devolution. I am sorry that the Opposition have been so churlish about metro mayors and combined authorities. I was a sceptic about having a Mayor of London, but at the end of the day, it has delivered in a very diverse and varied city, and if it is good enough for Toulouse, Berlin, Frankfurt, New York and Chicago, there is no reason why it should not be good enough for the great cities of this country. What we need to do though—I think this is recognised by other hon. Members who have spoken—is to ensure that we can find a light means of devolving real fiscal power down to our shire counties as well, because there has to be a proper balance.

I very much hope, therefore, that when we reform the business rates, which has also been part of our party’s manifesto, we can look at moving to a complete devolution of business rates to local authorities. The Mayor of London set up the London Finance Commission, which gave very cogent arguments about why property taxation was the obvious first step for straightforward devolution to local government. Business rates, stamp duty land tax and so on are areas that I hope we will look at. That is important, because it is not healthy in the long term if local government is overly dependent on the centre for grant. Those areas can reflect the varying housing and other property markets of particular localities. They can create a direct link with the role of local government as, increasingly, a driver of enterprise and growth, so there could be a direct and sensible reward from that devolution.

The other important point, which I touched on in my intervention on the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, is that such growth of revenue streams to local government could enable a greater degree of prudential borrowing and the further development of tax-increment financing to deliver major infrastructure projects without local authorities always having to go cap in hand to the Treasury. It would also boost what we are already seeing—although it is perhaps not sufficiently reported—which is a valuable extension of the municipal bond market. All those are important areas that we can take forward in this Parliament.

Finally, let me say a few words about the planning system, because delivering housing is partly about resource, but it is also about making sure that the system works well. We made significant improvements, and the Secretary of State was at the forefront of them, but there is more that can be done, so if I may I shall make a final plea. The one area that we have not yet reformed in the area of planning and land law is the compensation and compulsory purchase regime. That is now archaic; it is well out of date. It is a major piece of work, but it would greatly speed up the delivery of both homes and much needed infrastructure. I hope that, in the course of this Parliament, we can make that a priority, too.

It has been a pleasure to welcome all those Members who have made their maiden speeches today. I look forward to working with honourable colleagues in the coming days of the Parliament.