Third Reading

Part of Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 4:54 pm on 21st July 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour 4:54 pm, 21st July 2015

My Lords, I will also speak to Amendments 6 and 8. This is a very welcome but rather complicated Bill. As we are at Third Reading, I congratulate—genuinely—the Minister on her efforts in getting us up to speed on it and the helpful and constructive way that she has responded. I know I speak for the House when I say that I am grateful.

The Bill is complicated because it was originally designed to make possible replications, especially in the north and Midlands, of the Greater Manchester powerhouse model with its mayoralties: cities that together form a natural metro area, unitary cities sharing common histories and usually common political values and views, powering economic growth—they are indeed great cities. However, research shows that medium-sized cities, here and on the continent, contribute proportionately more to economic growth than the great cities. If the Government want to fulfil their objective of powering economic prosperity, which we all share, it is essential that we—the 30 or 50 medium-sized cities—are counted in. We form a key cities group; many of our members are stand-alone cities, whose adjacent local authorities are rural. We power, rightly, our local economies and most of us do not have contiguous urban neighbours.

The concept of northern, geographically coherent combined authorities—CAs—is therefore not easily transposed. In the great urban conglomerations of the north, all the functions that they seek can be devolved to one geographically bounded and defined horizontal authority, sufficiently large to be capable of exercising all the functions that underpin economic growth. That is not possible for us; we are not large enough. Instead, we need different-sized bodies for different functions. This is already recognised in the economic prosperity boards and the local enterprise bodies to which we belong.

To add to this complexity, we also have varying structures, finances and duties. Most of us are unitary; others are still trapped in a two-tier structure following the disastrous reorganisation of 1974. Some have artificially tight boundaries, so their wealth and energy creation leaks outwards. Many of us are university cities with research parks and high levels of skill, where the new industries and technologies of the future are being devised and developed now. Many—perhaps most—are located in the southern half of England, below the Severn-Wash line. We are untidy and Whitehall always wants to tidy us up. However, you need us if we are all to achieve our common goal of economic prosperity that is focused but is also diffused across the country to the south-west, the south coast and East Anglia, as well as to the Midlands and the north.

Finally, this Bill is complicated. It is good that it is a bottom-up Bill with bespoke arrangements, but it is not so good that the Bill is starting in this House well in advance of our ability to see any draft regulations. Inevitably, the Secretary of State does not know what proposals he will finally want or may find to be forthcoming, and we do not know what proposals he might find acceptable. To that extent, we are both finding our way. These amendments are probing, I hope; they are a hook for the Minister to explain as fully as she can how this Bill affects medium-sized cities such as ours and what flexibility and headspace the Bill offers us, because—with very good reason, and to our pleasure—those concerns have been added on to the original push for metro authorities with metro mayors.

I have authority to say that my concerns are shared by—and therefore that, in broad terms, I am speaking for—Plymouth and Exeter; Portsmouth and Southampton; Bournemouth and Southend; Norwich, Cambridge and Peterborough; Wakefield, Sunderland and Preston. I believe that there are many other medium-sized cities, with the short time between Report and Third Reading, that have not had time to authorise me to quote them; the others have.

As the leader of Southampton, Councillor Simon Letts, put it in an email:

“the issue for us is that we wish to establish governance for a separate economic geography (Southampton and Portsmouth) within a wider CA. This will allow us to take powers and responsibilities which can be applied to improve economic development for our urban coastal geography. That may not be necessary for the London-leaning areas around Basingstoke or the rural areas around the national parks”.

Councillor Woodley, leader of Southend-on-Sea, would like,

“the possibility to create different CAs which are not co-terminous (such as Southend and Thurrock)”.

I may know the answers to some of these questions now, thanks to the meeting yesterday with the Minister, for which I am most grateful—but for the record I shall ask some questions, as many local authorities, as my emails have shown, are still very unsure what the offer is, which is none the less going to be essential if we are going to promote, extend and diffuse economic prosperity.

Will it be possible to devolve powers directly to cities within CAs, or will the powers be available only if devolved from CAs? Will the groups of cities be able to form a combined authority within a much larger geographical area that might itself be made up of one or more CAs—for example, Norwich and Cambridge, within two or three counties? Will it be possible to have a CA for economic development, skills, transport and so on, and form another and larger CA for the purposes of pooling health and social care budgets? Would it be possible for geographically separate cities to form CAs around the development of key economic sectors, such as engineering in Sunderland and Coventry, health and life sciences in Norwich and Cambridge, and marine services and marine research in Plymouth, Portsmouth and Southampton? What relationship is expected between LEPs and CAs? Must they be on the same geography, or can they be different? How are the governance arrangements to fit together?

To give a concrete example, would it be possible to have a combined authority of Norfolk and Suffolk, along the lines of our Anglia LEP plus, together with a combined authority of Cambridge and Peterborough, along the lines of their LEP plus, and a joint committee with powers devolved directly or indirectly through the CA, aligning greater Norwich, greater Cambridge and Peterborough around skills and back-to-work schemes? Could we combine that role? This would create opportunities for strategic planning—for example, on rail transport between Norwich and Cambridge; the opportunity to build on city deals between greater Norwich and greater Cambridge; and strong collaboration between the universities at Norwich and at Cambridge. Given the briefing that I had yesterday, I suspect that Norwich could be in only one combined authority, that of greater Norwich, and that Cambridge could be in only one, that of greater Cambridge, but that both CAs and any local authorities within them, or indeed outside them, such as Ipswich, could collaborate and form joint committees for any purpose that contributes to economic prosperity, and that each constituent member would bring its own funding to the table—and to do so would not need the Secretary of State’s approval. That is my understanding of where we are, and I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that I am reading it correctly.

Perhaps the Minister could address the questions and confirm my understanding. Essentially, how best do we devise appropriate structures—smaller for some functions, larger for others, and non-coterminous for yet others still —for those medium-sized cities, which they need if they are to play their essential part in growing the prosperity of this country, which we all want? I beg to move.