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Devolution and Growth Across Britain

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:39 pm on 3rd June 2015.

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Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 6:39 pm, 3rd June 2015

I congratulate you on your re-election today, Mr Deputy Speaker. I also congratulate the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on his promotion; he brings a great deal of experience and expertise to his new position. I know that his Conservative colleagues are relieved that they do not need the Liberal Democrats to form a Government this time, but I also know that the Secretary of State’s old Social Democratic party colleagues are delighted that there is still one liberal left in the Cabinet.

We have had an excellent and wide-ranging debate. Given the time constraint, I will focus my remarks on devolution in England and housing, but first I congratulate all new hon. Members, from both sides of the House, on their maiden speeches: from the Conservative Benches, the hon. Members for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), for Gower (Byron Davies), for Cardiff North (Craig Williams), for Solihull (Julian Knight) and for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double); and from the Scottish National party Benches, the hon. Members for Edinburgh West (Michelle Thomson) and for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman).

I warmly welcome the maiden speeches of my hon. Friends on the Labour Benches. My hon. Friends the Members for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) both rightly argued that our EU membership is vital for jobs, investment and economic growth. My hon. Friend Helen Hayes stressed her determination to secure better and more affordable housing for her constituents. I had the pleasure of visiting my hon. Friend Anna Turley a few weeks ago in her constituency. I am delighted at the Labour gain there. She is right to prioritise bringing more jobs and investment to her area. My hon. Friend Peter Kyle spoke of the two world-class universities in his constituency and convinced us all that it is the best, happiest and coolest place to live in the UK.

As my hon. Friend Mr Umunna set out in his opening speech, the Labour party wants an ambitious and forward-looking devolution agenda that hands to the local level resources and power over areas such as transport, housing, skills and other levers to drive economic growth. We are one of the most centralised countries in western Europe and our cities, towns and counties have not had the opportunities, which many of their European counterparts have benefited from, to shape their own agenda and destiny and to drive their own economic success.

We want the Government to go further and faster on devolution. Rather than a series of one-off deals done by the Chancellor, we want a comprehensive plan for devolution to every part of England. Many county councils are worried about being left behind. The Conservative leader of Devon County Council has rightly warned against a piecemeal approach to devolution that focuses only on city regions and excludes our counties.

Will the Secretary of State explain why the so-called Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill does not actually devolve any power or resources and does not give local areas a choice on metro mayors? As my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) powerfully argued in their speeches, if the Government were committed to real devolution and localism they would surely let local communities choose for themselves, rather than putting obstacles in the way of devolution.

We know, after all, what councils can achieve when they are given the means and power. Councils across the country are working together and innovating to deliver better public services for less. To do more, local areas must have the resources that they need. Devolution must not be a smokescreen for bringing local government to its knees. The test for the new Secretary of State will be whether he can devolve power from Whitehall and deliver a fairer funding settlement for the whole of local government. His predecessor’s negotiating strategy could be summed up in three words: “more cuts please”. As a result, local government suffered deeper cuts than any other part of the public sector. The only thing that the Secretary of State’s predecessor devolved was the blame for decisions that he made in Whitehall.

The new Secretary of State must secure a change in how funds are distributed to local government and, crucially, restore the link between resources and need. In the last five years, the Government have hit with the biggest cuts the most deprived areas with the greatest needs. No part of the country has faced bigger cuts to local authority budgets than the north of England. That is why, as my hon. Friend Mr Marsden said, the Opposition remain deeply sceptical about the Government’s boasting about their role in bringing about a northern powerhouse.

The other key test for the new Secretary of State is whether he will set out serious plans and reforms to tackle the housing crisis. The scale of the challenge must not be underestimated. We are not even building half the number of homes that we need to keep up with demand in this country.