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Devolution and Growth Across Britain

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:51 pm on 3rd June 2015.

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Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 4:51 pm, 3rd June 2015

I would like to add my welcome to my hon. Friend Byron Davies. He made an excellent speech and brings a lot to this Chamber, and I look forward to hearing his future contributions.

I, too, welcome the Department for Communities and Local Government team to its place and in particular the Secretary of State, whose Parliamentary Private Secretary I once was, and whose localist tendencies I fully share.

I want to concentrate on the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill and ask what localism looks like under a majority Conservative Government. The last Government established that the Conservative party was localist to its fingertips, and it is appropriate to ask that question now in the context of that Bill.

It is a shame that in the last Parliament we called what was essentially a planning Bill the Localism Bill. It achieved the planning things, but we have taken the localism agenda much further over the past few years, and the Secretary of State has been responsible for many of the city deals. I also remind the House of what his predecessor, my right hon. Friend Sir Eric Pickles, said:

“Localism should go hand in hand with greater transparency, local accountability and robust democratic scrutiny.”—[Official Report, 26 March 2015;
Vol. 594, c. 166WS.]

Those things are very important and while we can talk about the transfer of Whitehall powers to cities, we also need to remember that in rural areas the lowest common denominator for the transfer of those powers is individual neighbourhoods, and of course neighbourhood planning is only now being fully recognised on the ground as ever more communities take on the responsibilities of deciding where the housing should go, what it should look like and what open green spaces should be preserved.

The importance of this in the context of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill is in looking at the structures of local government that we need, to show how powers can be devolved down—or transferred across—to the lowest level, not just to upper-tier authorities. That needs to be part of the analysis in every Government policy and we need to keep that emphasis on democratic accountability throughout.

The starting point of this Bill is a recognition that the old model of running everything from Whitehall is not working, and that we need to liberate our cities and, crucially, free up our rural areas in a way that reflects their needs and is appropriate to them. I will give an example of that. Devolving powers that cities need is crucial, particularly in respect of integrating the NHS and social care, but this is also necessary for rural areas. We have some move towards that in Oxfordshire, where the county council shares some of its senior staff with the clinical commissioning group. That integration is crucial in the town of Henley, where at its Townlands hospital the CCG is trying to replace the traditional hospital model with one of greater social care at home, taking away hospital beds on the strength of promises on what social care in the home can deliver. I fail to see why it is necessary to have an elected mayor to achieve that, when instead we might think about what would be appropriate for that local community to have.

Localism is not just about devolving powers; it is also about democratic accountability and devolving responsibilities, so we need to look at the issue again. We cannot go back to a system of central control from Whitehall of anything, including of housing numbers. Equally, we cannot move back to a system where the town hall or a quango takes up control of where that housing should go—the same applies to growth. I suspect that the model being proposed will be taken up by cities, but its application to rural areas needs to be worked on a little more, because the problems there are just as acute, if not more so, and there is a need to get governance right.

On growth, we need to ensure that we see the LEPs for what they really are and what they can do. It is no secret that I have a fractured relationship with my LEP, which has practically never come to my constituency, despite requests to do so. We should ensure that we are not creating a back-door way of establishing faceless quangos, which were so loved by Labour, or of giving them, God forbid, unaccountable planning powers by taking powers from district councils. LEPs are there to show that business can help in delivery, and we can use them as a resource.

In conclusion, I emphasise the need to foster apprenticeship schemes and to ensure that the relationships with good trainers are right. We need to ensure that the schools are focused on apprenticeships, not just as an academic alternative, but as a real alternative to the sort of education that we have come to expect.