Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [HL] — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:55 pm on 8th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Woolmer of Leeds Lord Woolmer of Leeds Labour 5:55 pm, 8th June 2015

My Lords, I shall first say a word or two about what is occasionally referred to as “Leeds”. I say this because this is not about individual cities, but groups of cities in our metropolitan areas. When noble Lords in this House and the media talk about Leeds in this context, they really mean Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield, Halifax and Wakefield. It is a red rag to a bull for some people in those other cities and towns to be regarded as Leeds. It is a conurbation of some 2.2 million people.

Some years ago, when the Government asked local authorities to get together and form city regions, Leeds City Region was formed. It includes not only West Yorkshire but Barnsley in South Yorkshire and York, Harrogate, Skipton and Selby in North Yorkshire. That indicates the problem for the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who is not in his place: that bringing LEPs in line with other bodies is rather difficult in some parts of the world. North Yorkshire certainly does not want to be under a Leeds mayor, if you will excuse the expression. At the moment in Tyneside, in the north-east, I believe that Northumberland and Durham are in some relationship with the Tyne authorities.

These are very substantial conurbations with enormous potential and people working together. The first time I recall them working together was under the metropolitan counties. I had the pleasure of being the leader of West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council. The two features I remember are that, for the first time, the towns and cities of West Yorkshire met and talked with a sense of coherence. Secondly, it was the first time that the counties of North Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and Humberside met regularly. So these things have been a long time in gestation.

Although I warmly welcome the Bill because it provides the possibility of selective devolution, I bear in mind that past attempts to engage in devolution have not always been successful. The metropolitan counties were formed after a lot of discussion, inquiries and differences of views, but they were abolished fairly quickly. The regional development agencies did a very good job in Yorkshire, but they were also abolished. This is a new measure, and I hope that it has staying power.

Because it is an enabling Bill, a framework Bill, it inevitably raises questions. Usually I ask a series of questions along the way and make observations. The first is to understand how this Bill fits into government thinking on the devolution of powers and of fiscal powers certainly within England and within Wales. What is the Government’s thinking on this? They appear to be saying, “Let’s let some local authorities get together and bid for some powers, and that’ll be devolution”. If that had been said to Scotland, we would have got a rap round the ear for it. So I do not understand the thinking behind the framework for devolution in England not only of powers but of fiscal powers. You cannot have real devolution without finance. It is no good finance being controlled by the Treasury—that is not devolution—and there is no sign in the Bill that fiscal devolution is genuinely under consideration. The Treasury would no doubt be fighting like mad if it was.

That leads me to the question of what powers are actually being devolved. There have been many eloquent speeches, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, to whom we have all owed an enormous debt over the years for always making sure that this issue was at the forefront of awareness in government. I am not entirely sure what powers are being devolved. Some powers currently held by local authorities are being taken over by a mayor or a combined authority, but not many. Critically, the Minister referred, rightly, to health and social care in Greater Manchester; that would truly be a significant step forward, but that is not being talked about for the vast majority of parts of England and Wales.

That then leads to the question of mayors and the decision on them. I happen to believe that mayors would be very helpful, and I support the idea, although I have to say that in West Yorkshire there is a lot of doubt about them. The local authorities work very well together under a leader-in-cabinet model—the five leaders of the local authorities meet and take decisions within a legal framework—and if this is about devolution to local areas, why do the Government insist that they must have mayors? Why is that devolution? There is no fiscal devolution. The authorities are being told how to run themselves from the top, so I do not really understand this.

The Chancellor has made a commitment on this. A few days ago in a private briefing with the Minister, I understood that it was not compulsory, but it appears again today that it is essential that a mayor be appointed. If it is essential, at least in a metropolitan area, what powers will they be given, for which they can judge whether the price is worth paying? Do they have to go through the process of bidding for them and getting a counterbid? If the Government are clear about what it is essential to have a mayor for and what powers would tip the balance, they should be able to say. If local authorities are left in the dark, each one will bid a different thing. If each asks a different question, they might get a different answer. That makes no sense. If the Government are clear that a mayor is essential, at least in the large metropolitan conurbations, I would like to be much clearer, certainly in Committee, about the tipping point—the critical power that the local authorities would get that led to a mayor being appointed.

I have asked in this debate, and no doubt will ask in Committee, what fiscal and borrowing powers the Government will be willing to devolve, and whether that is a serious proposition. How far do they feel that fiscal powers need to be devolved, and what will that mean for the power of these authorities? Certainly in my experience of local government, if you do not have the money or the resources, you can have all the powers in the world on paper, you can talk to everybody and persuade people—and that is not unimportant; your relationship with business and communities is critical to the success of your area—eventually people get fed up with talking. What is the Government’s thinking? Have they set their mind against serious consideration of fiscal powers? If they are prepared to consider them, they cannot consider them in ad hoc discussions with individual authorities. It would have to be a central government decision, a parliamentary decision, on what fiscal powers are going to be devolved.

I conclude with remarks that were provoked by my good friend, my noble friend Lord Prescott, who unfortunately is not here—it is probably to my benefit that he is not behind me shouting at me. I do not think that the Minister referred to the northern powerhouse. It is the first speech from a Minister that I have heard since months before the election that did not mention it. The noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, was the first speaker today to mention it. Will the Minister say what the Government really mean by “the northern powerhouse”? What is it? Where is it? Is it from the north of Newcastle to Sheffield, from coast to coast, from Hull to Liverpool? If it is, and I suspect that it must be in reality if it is to make economic sense, it is extremely important that the individual metropolitan areas such as Greater Manchester, Leeds, which I cannot call Greater Leeds or I will be shot, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire—these conurbations across the north of England, east to west, north to south, and these are big distances—work together.

This is not just about their getting powers but about working together. The single most important thing that central government can do for the northern powerhouse—and this also applies eventually to a Labour Government, hopefully, if there is a change of government—is to deliver not just HS2 but HS3. Those communication links are absolutely critical to the north of England. Without them, we will have created maybe big pockets, but pockets none the less, of metropolitan strength, but that will not lead to northern-powerhouse strength. That, I honestly believe, is a tremendous opportunity which this Government have at least seized as their electoral slogan. I do not mean that as a slight, because I regard it as a triumph of vision. It is very important that that goes ahead.