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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:35 pm on 8th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat 7:35 pm, 8th June 2015

My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, although I think on this occasion a rather dangerous one as he tempts me into reminiscing too much about the many happy hours, days, weeks and, indeed, months we spent in 1999 on the Greater London Authority Bill. He is right to say that it was extremely long on detail—mostly about what the Mayor of London could not do; it was extremely short on the detail of how to do it. However, the one thing I do not recall having any difficulty with was what we were going to call Greater London. We had some difficulty over whether it was an authority or a council and most people still referred to it as the GLC, but it was still Greater London.

Before I forget, I must declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

This has been a very useful, interesting and stimulating debate with a wide measure of agreement on the things we do agree about and agreement on the concerns that I think are widely shared on all sides of the House. It was made clear by the previous five speakers on these Benches that the Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill’s principles and intentions. Indeed, how could we do otherwise, as most of us have argued for the whole of our political lives for greater devolution? The first Liberal Party publication I ever read back in the 1960s was entitled Power to the Provinces, so at last, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, we are perhaps at an historic moment. The noble Lord has featured frequently throughout the debate and has been present throughout to hear all the comments. We very much welcome that, as he has shaped the thinking on these issues for a very long time.

Noble Lords on these Benches have made clear that we welcome the Bill but have a number of concerns. We are very concerned about democracy, accountability and scrutiny, particularly as regards the city areas—the combined authorities to be created over this Parliament —as there is a very real danger of their becoming one-party states in a way that may matter to some on this side of the House. It does not matter which party is involved, a one-party state is not good for democracy, challenge or scrutiny. I hope that is something to which we can give more attention.

Reference has been made to the need to devolve fiscal powers, and I hope more reference will be made to that. Unless these authorities have the power actually to raise funds, they will not have real power. I hope we are reaching the stage when central government is willing and brave enough to tackle those issues.

I hope that we will say more about the relationship of the new authorities with their local communities, not just or particularly the political communities, if I can call them that, but the business communities, which I think are generally welcoming but, perhaps understandably, a little suspicious of what may be coming. So that is important.

Lastly, as has been mentioned by a number of speakers, the Bill starts by calling itself the cities Bill and then goes on to say “local government”. We must ensure that we do not talk and think only about the cities, important though they are, but that we remember what is actually the greater part of the rest of England—the non-metropolitan areas and the rural areas. I hope we will pay considerable attention to those.

Our aim during the remaining stages of the Bill will be to try to prompt the Government to think more about some of the very important details in these proposals, to tease out some of that thinking and debate it, and to look at how we can amend what is and must remain an enabling Bill so that it gives the right degree of guidance without being too prescriptive. That is something that we will have to pay some attention to.

There have been references to London throughout today’s debate. Many of those were quite properly references to the economy but quite a few were also to government. As someone who has been a London borough councillor for 40 years, until last year, I say to your Lordships that, in government terms, the London more usually referred to as Whitehall or Westminster is at least as distant from the London Borough of Sutton or the London Borough of Enfield as, for instance, Newcastle or Manchester. It is important that devolution applies to and within London as elsewhere.

I know that the Bill does not cover London specifically, for structural reasons we know and understand, but I hope the Minister can say something in her reply to give encouragement to the mayor, the GLA and the London boroughs that although they may not be covered by the provisions of the Bill, the Government are at least ready to hear proposals from the mayor and the London boroughs that respond to the encouragement that the Bill gives elsewhere. I know that that is something that both the GLA and London Councils have been working on and are looking forward to being able to promote. They are rather anxious that the Bill might actually set that back rather than encourage it. I hope the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance there.

I have just mentioned my 40 years as a London borough councillor. As it happened, the first 12 of those years were with the Greater London Council. During the next 14 years we had no strategic authority for London—unless you regard central government as the strategic authority—and we tried to work on a London borough basis. It was not a good time but one of the really good things that came out of that period was the growth of real co-operation between London boroughs, which we had not previously known and which still exists. Of course, my last 14 years were during the period of the Greater London Authority. Most relevant perhaps was that I became a London borough council leader almost on the same day that the GLC was abolished, and I stood down from the leadership in order to stand for election—a successful election—to the London Assembly, of which I was a member for its first eight years. I mention all that not because it is a declarable interest, which it is not, but because I think that a lot of that experience has some bearing on the points we are going to consider. I understand, of course, that the structure of London government is different in many ways from what is proposed now, but I think that there are lessons we can learn from the experience in London, good and bad, of having these arrangements.

We have spent a lot of time—perhaps too much time, and I fear that will continue—talking about elected mayors. London had the first elected mayor, as I am sure I do not need to remind people, particularly on this side of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will know that he spent most of his time as the Minister responsible trying to put things into the Bill to ensure that the first Mayor of London did not have too much power, as he had when he was leader of the GLC. In a way, that is my point. I think we are getting too obsessed with elected mayors. I am not and never have been a fan. I do not understand why this Government are so keen, as the previous Government were, to have them and why we do not simply have them on a permissive basis—if people want them, fine, let us have them; if they do not, they do not.

The only argument put forward today in support came from the Minister and was that people need to know who is accountable. I have no idea of Ken Livingstone’s view as to whether he was more accountable as leader of the GLC or as Mayor of London. I would suggest that at the time he was at least equally well known as either and most Londoners really did not know or care what title he had; it was what he was doing that was rather more of concern. Similarly, we learned in the recent election that a very large number of people, not only in London, think that Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister and not the Mayor of London, so I just do not buy that argument. In my experience, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said, if council leaders are any good, they have at least as much power as any elected mayor, if they use it properly and effectively. So I simply do not understand that. My concern is that we will spend too much time on that issue and not enough time on what, frankly, are more important issues. I urge the Government to think about whether it is really necessary to impose elected mayors as a condition of getting the powers and funding that people want—in other words, bribery.

There are other issues. We have talked about accountability and scrutiny. If we are to have elected mayors and strong combined authorities, it is crucial that the scrutiny function, the challenge function and the accountability must be equally strong. It is a very important part of democracy and democratic accountability. There is a real danger that we will not have that. Again referring to the GLA, there is a strong mayor and a weak assembly. The only power the London Assembly has is to amend—and it is a fairly limited amendment power—the mayor’s budget if there is a two-thirds majority. In the first 15 years of the Greater London Authority, the mayor has never had a majority for his budget but equally there has never been a two-thirds majority to amend it. The mayor has always known that and the power is therefore useless. So the scrutiny function needs to be stronger and it needs to be effective. I hope we can pay some attention to that.

I mentioned earlier the relationship with communities. It is very easy, and I think it will be even easier with these combined authorities, for local authorities to become too inward-looking, talking too much to themselves and the people closely around them. It is very important that they build a relationship with all the communities—the geographical communities and the interest communities, and particularly the business community. Again, I hope we can give some attention to how that is going to happen.

I conclude with just one warning. I am and always have been a strong advocate of devolution but it has also been the case—in too many cases—that devolution has paradoxically led to greater centralisation. I would give Scotland as an example. We have devolved a lot of power to Scotland, to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive. Actually, within Scotland it has become very much more centralised. Ask anyone of any party in Scottish local government and they will tell you: it is more centralised now than it was before we devolved power. That does not automatically have to happen. It should not happen and we must ensure that it does not.

We welcome the Bill and its principles and intentions, and we will try to ensure that it leaves this House a better Bill.