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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:18 pm on 8th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Conservative 7:18 pm, 8th June 2015

My Lords, I have very much enjoyed the debate today and it has been a privilege to hear speeches from two former Deputy Prime Ministers. I very much enjoyed hearing them both claim that they are in some way the godfather of the proposals in this Bill—and justifiably so. My noble friend Lord Heseltine showed what local leadership can do when, in the 1980s, he championed the cause of Liverpool. It is testament to what he achieved in that city that my noble friend, a Conservative Peer, was awarded the freedom of the city of Liverpool by a Labour council.

My noble friend spoke about this being a process of evolution. He is right, because when the noble Lord, Lord Prescott—who is not in his place—was in office, we had the Urban Task Force, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside. It was set up to,

“identify causes of urban decline and establish a vision for our cities”.

I looked back at what the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, said just over 10 years ago in reviewing progress. He talked about the change of culture in favour of towns and cities, and about people moving back into city centres. He produced an incredible figure, which I presume is true:

“In 1990 there were 90 people living in the heart of Manchester; today”— that was in 2004—“there are 25,000 residents”.

He went on to say:

“English cities have established themselves as powerhouses in the UK economy and centres for cultural innovation”.

But he was also clear that the job was far from done and that there was much more to do.

That brings me to the Bill. For years now we have talked about the north/south divide; urban regeneration; how to decentralise power; bringing decision-making closer to people; the need for greater accountability; encouraging greater investment in transport; and, more recently, about achieving greater co-ordination between healthcare and social care. The Bill sets out to deal with all these issues. It is about providing leadership and more effective local governance of city regions, and about keeping decision-making simple and straightforward. We are not proposing regional talking shops.

I know that there are some worries about whether the Bill’s provisions will lead to another layer of bureaucracy. I believe that the fears are misplaced. As my right honourable friend David Davis put it a few days ago, the Bill is about providing maximum power with minimum bureaucracy. Of course, as the Bill’s provisions roll out across the country we will need to respond to the different circumstances of the city regions, as many speakers have said. We will need flexibility. We do not want a one-size-fits-all Bill.

This is a big Bill with big objectives, but I want to focus briefly on one issue. It is a big one: the need for transparency and public scrutiny. As the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, pointed out, the Bill could lead to a concentration of power in the hands of one political party. We have seen all too recently—I am thinking of Tower Hamlets—what can happen when too much power is put in the hands of one person without effective scrutiny. The Bill seeks to deal with this by the establishment of overview and scrutiny committees. These committees will have the power, to quote the Bill,

“to review or scrutinise decisions made, or other action taken”.

It is not immediately clear—at least to me—what the difference is between reviewing a decision and scrutinising it. I also note the use of the past tense: these committees will be reviewing or scrutinising decisions already made or action already taken—in other words, only after the event. It is true that the committees will be able to recommend that a decision is reconsidered, but if action has already been taken it may well be too late.

To be fair, the committees will have the power to make recommendations to the mayor. This could perhaps allow them to keep a watching brief on decisions in the making. However, although the Bill gives them these powers, they are not bound to exercise them, or to do so in an effective and, above all, open way.

Here we come to the role of the Secretary of State. According to the Bill, the Secretary of State will be able to issue guidance on the exercise of these powers. This could be crucial, so I hope that when we come to consider the proposals more closely in Committee the Minister will be able to tell us more. We do not want debate and decision-making behind closed doors. But, having said all this, I strongly support the Bill.