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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:08 pm on 8th June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat 6:08 pm, 8th June 2015

My Lords, the principle behind the Bill is to be thoroughly welcomed. Devolution to areas of England has long been an aim with cross-party support. It is even more frustrating, therefore, that this Bill as currently described is such a missed opportunity.

It is positive that the Bill enables different approaches to be developed across England, but this is completely undermined by the authoritarian demand that adopting a mayoral model is the only form of governance that is acceptable for the full range of powers on offer.

I thought it would be helpful if I analysed how the situation as currently presented would affect my own West Yorkshire. I thank the previous speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, for raising the issues that are of particular concern to West Yorkshire, and remind him that we are talking not about Greater Leeds but about Greater Huddersfield.

I served on the board of Yorkshire Forward, which was one of the regional development agencies that had tremendous success in bringing economic development and world-class industry to Yorkshire, including bringing Siemens to Hull, which the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, mentioned. I served on that board for 10 years so can claim to have some experience of what can be achieved by people coming together with the specific aim of bringing economic development, jobs and prosperity to local people.

Yorkshire has a lot to recommend it: world-class universities and hospitals, an industrial base that includes world leaders in chemicals and engineering and, in Leeds, a financial centre of huge significance. Sadly, this is not matched by the quality of transport infrastructure, the ability to plan strategic economic development and the level of skills to meet growing demand. The latter challenges are of course linked to the lack of appropriate powers and responsibilities for the area.

Does the Government’s proposal provide the means to respond to these great challenges and open up the opportunities for growth? To expand on just one issue, connectivity has to be greatly improved if West Yorkshire is to attract inward investment. I sat for some years on the Northern Way board, which has also been mentioned today. One of the key decisions that that board made was that more important than bringing high-speed rail from London to the north was to have a trans-north link of high speed and high quality to link the two great ports of Liverpool and Hull in order to open up the economic development provided by the links, on the one side, to the American economic base and, on the other, to northern Europe. It is deeply to be regretted that HS3 has not been pushed forward as a primary objective rather than HS2.

We need greater connectivity. I have to tell noble Lords that the offer in the face of that huge challenge is totally inadequate, both in the size of the public investment required and in the strength of the democracy in the governance structures on offer. If West Yorkshire is to be enabled to meet the challenges, it will need a far greater level of resources than currently expended by Whitehall, and the means to raise the additional resources needed is ignored by the Bill. So that is a missed opportunity.

Throughout today’s discussion on devolution, the implication is somehow that these resources from Whitehall are being devolved to the city regions, or combined authorities—call them what you will. In fact, it is our money that we are getting back; it is the VAT that people in West Yorkshire spend which should be retained there, as should the business rates raised there. Let us have a think about this devolution by flipping the coin and saying, “Actually, that money is being raised in taxation from the people in that area and should be spent by them”. If we started thinking of the matter in that way, we would see it less as the wonderful Government giving us powers to spend our money and more as us saying, “Come on, this is our money that we’ve raised. We have a responsibility and a duty to spend it in our area ourselves”. That for me is the issue of finance.

The current governance proposals for these vital strategic decisions is to have a mayoral model that has already been decisively rejected in a referendum in each of the five metropolitan council areas, serving 2.2 million people, as the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, has explained. We have to remember when we talk about city devolution that West Yorkshire has three great cities—Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield—while the West Yorkshire Combined Authority area includes another great city, York, which is not contiguous with West Yorkshire; the North Yorkshire district of Harrogate and Selby comes in between. So the proposal raises concerns about geography and having an area that is not cohesive, if nothing else.

The governance of this combined authority is also likely to be contentious. The composition of the governance of the area under the current proposals will probably establish a single-party state. The five West Yorkshire council leaders are all Labour, the leader of York is currently not Labour but the holder of that post often is and, if a mayoral model is forced upon us, that is also likely to go to Labour, judging by the results from the last election. Some noble Lords might think it would be a good idea to have all those people from the one party but we all know that that is not a healthy form of governance. We have seen examples of what happens when there is basically single-party local governance in Doncaster and Rotherham, to name but two. To have healthy governance you need strong challenge and accountability and, I am sad to say, that is not on offer in the model presented to us; the proposed scrutiny committee could also be dominated by people from the same party. I have already asked the Minister in the briefing whether it would be possible to constrain the chairs of that committee to be members of a party other than those forming the combined authority, to give it some improved accountability.

The conclusion has to be that this model of governance and offer of finance is a completely inadequate response to the demands of people in Yorkshire who are looking for bold devolution in line with that given to Scotland and Wales—perhaps even a Yorkshire Parliament. Effective devolution releases the energies and creativity of local people; what is on offer just eases the straitjacket. In the light of this analysis, I am left wondering what is motivating the Government. What is the driving force behind their desire to devolve constrained NHS budgets and increasingly poor-quality roads and rail links? As Virgil wrote 2,000 years ago:

“Timeo Danaos, et dona ferentes”— beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Having said that, I welcome the principle that is on offer, but I urge the Government to be bolder in their scope and more democratic in their governance.