We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Devolution and Growth Across Britain

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:10 pm on 3rd June 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport) 5:10 pm, 3rd June 2015

I congratulate new hon. Members to this House from both sides of the Chamber on making such distinguished maiden speeches today, particularly my hon. Friend Anna Turley, who made a passionate speech about her constituency and the relevance of steel, where there is a bond between us: steel from Redcar was used to build the Bullring in my city of Birmingham. While talking about Birmingham, I thank the people of Birmingham, Northfield for electing me for a sixth successive time, despite quite unprecedented financial amounts being spent by the Conservative party in trying to secure a different result. Not only did Labour win the parliamentary seat, but we won a council seat in that constituency off the Conservatives at the same time, so things did not go quite according to their plan.

It is good to see the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in his place. He will know that those of us who have argued for devolution to the regions and sub-regions of England for many years will be pleased that this is now becoming mainstream thinking across the Chamber. It is good to see that the Chancellor was in the west midlands just this week, and I certainly welcome the progress that is being made towards a combined authority in that area, but I want to make three points to Ministers in the time that I have available today.

First, if devolution is to work in England, it must involve a shift of power, not simply a shift of responsibility. I ask the Secretary of State and his colleagues to take seriously what my right hon. Friend the acting Leader of the Opposition said in her initial response to the Gracious Speech, when she said that no one empowers local authorities by impoverishing them. That is an important point, but we need to identify new local funding streams. Again, I ask the Government to pay serious regard to the points made by my hon. Friend Mr Betts about identifying those new funding streams and, in particular, looking at revenue raising as well as revenue devolution.

Secondly, if devolution is to stimulate growth in the way we want and make a real difference to people’s lives, a one-size-fits-all approach is not good enough. A good argument is being made for elected mayors in many areas, but what is right for one metropolitan area is not necessarily right for another, let alone for non-metropolitan areas. Often travel-to-work areas and economic activity clusters and so on do not fit neatly into political boundaries. That is why, if devolution is to work, the Government need to listen to ideas coming up from below as well as putting their preferred solutions down from on high.

Thirdly, the challenge of devolution within regions, sub-regions or cities is as important as devolution to those regions, sub-regions or cities. We all know that the politics of identity is important in all our areas. It is an issue in my part of Birmingham. I represent a constituency on the edge of Birmingham, where people often feel on the edge of decision making in their city as well as on the edge of decision making nationally.

My constituency is the worst low-pay blackspot in the country. We have the highest number of people paid less than the living wage of £7.85 an hour: more than 50% of working people, reaching up to 63.1% of women in the area. Long-term unemployment remains a real issue in my constituency. People sometimes say that that is the kind of environment that drains aspiration, but as a local teacher told me recently, it is not that people do not aspire to have the best for their children; the point is often that people do not have the expectation that things will change for them and their families. If devolution is to work, it must offer the prospect of that real change. It does mean that, in education, listening to what is needed in local areas will be important; we should not simply get one-size-fits-all academisation or free schools. We need to look at school funding streams for areas, particularly white working class areas, where extreme deprivation exists alongside relative affluence. The pupil premium, even though it does good things in some areas, does not necessarily meet the needs in those areas.

We also need to look at what the barriers to skills development are that lie behind some of the low-pay statistics in Northfield that I quoted earlier. Simply quoting statistics about how many apprenticeships have been created does not address those problems. It is about adult skills, too. Just before the election, the Government announced a massive cut in the adult skills budget. Turning that around will also be important if we are to turn around the life chances of people in my area.

What I am saying is that the test for the Government is to listen. The test for any new combined authority in my area will be to listen. Unless devolution reaches out to people who feel on the edge of our country, our regions or cities, we will not transform the life chances that they deserve to have transformed and devolution will not achieve what it says in theory.