Amendment 128

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 15 March 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Lord Scriven:

Moved by Lord Scriven

128: Clause 48, page 43, line 18, at end insert– “(3A) A CCA may, with the consent of its constituent authorities, request that the Chancellor of the Exchequer devolve further fiscal powers to that CCA to help its regeneration powers, and those fiscal powers may not be unreasonably withheld.”Member’s explanatory statementThis is a probing amendment to assess the Government's willingness to empower a CCA to drive its regeneration plans forward using enhanced fiscal powers.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I shall speak to the only amendment in this group, Amendment 128 in my name and signed by my noble friend Lord Shipley. This is a probing amendment to tease out the Government’s thinking on this issue. It was a deliberate decision to have this amendment in a group on its own because this really is the elephant in the room: fiscal devolution. We can talk about structures and systems but, without the proper levers of finance and autonomy at a local level, the structures and the systems will achieve very little and will not deliver the equalling up of areas and regions across the country.

I think we need to be clear about what this amendment is not about. This is not about handing down moneys raised by national taxation to areas so they have a little extra leeway on how that money can be spent. As welcome as this is, it is a small step that is not going to solve the regional inequalities that exist in the country. This is what the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands authority calls the “begging bowl approach”. It is nothing more than spending decentralisation. It was quite amusing, listening to the Chancellor earlier today talk about a pothole fund. The very notion that a Chancellor of the Exchequer stands up in the national Parliament to deal with potholes is ludicrous. A predetermined pot of money handed down, usually with strings from Whitehall, to have local areas determine key projects in areas to spend that money is not fiscal devolution.

It was also telling that the Chancellor today, in announcing that the West Midlands and Greater Manchester combined authorities will have departmental-type arrangements, sees these arrangements as nothing more than decentralisation of central government departmental spending. It is even more telling, as has been reported in the Financial Times, I think it was, that even when the areas get this extra leeway on how the money is spent, there may be a committee set up here in Westminster to oversee how that money is prioritised and then spent. Other parts of the world that understand and implement devolution will be laughing in disbelief at this ridiculous notion of local autonomy.

Let us be clear about what this amendment does talk about and what we are trying to glean from the Government. It is about extra levers the Government are thinking of giving to local areas to either raise extra money or vary existing taxes so that they can raise money or vary the amounts of taxes in an area to invest with full autonomy in their local areas and economies to try to deal with regional inequalities.

Local taxes represent a very small proportion of the total revenue of local government in the UK. Figures indicate approximately 15% of total local revenue is raised by local taxes in the country, compared with 60% in Sweden, 45% in Italy, 48% in France, 40% in Germany and 52% in Spain. Even with this Bill, local government in the UK will still be dependent on inter-governmental transfers. Approximately 67% of local government revenue in the UK was in this form of government grants. This compares with only 31% in Sweden, 33% in Spain, 40% in Italy, 37% in Germany and 25% in France.

At the city or combined authority level, the difference becomes even more apparent, particularly in comparison to other world cities. More than 73% of the West Midlands combined authority’s revenue and almost 69% of London’s revenue come from central government transfers. This is compared with Frankfurt at 13%, Berlin at 33%, New York City at 26%, Madrid at 32%, Paris at 16% and Tokyo at 12%. The lack of any significant financial autonomy is apparent. We are the most centrally fiscally controlled nation in the western world.

As I pointed out at Second Reading, in England

“only two property-based taxes are the levers that local politicians”—[Official Report,17/1/23; col. 1756.] have. For one of those, council tax, a ceiling is set here in this national Parliament. For business rates, again, the valuation amount is done centrally. There are very few levers any local government can have full autonomy over here in the UK. In France, local areas have nine taxes; in Germany there are more than 12; and in New York the figure is 22. The OECD has reported that, for regional and local government to be really effective and deal with regional inequalities, local areas need to have the fiscal powers, with a split of taxes and levies based on 60% property and 40% non-property.

Again, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands combined authority is seeking a role in VAT and wants the proportion that can be held and raised to be discussed locally. Other types of revenue that are raised and varied at local level in other countries include the real estate levy, refuse levy, sewer levy, pollution levy and levies for the use of municipal land, as well as tourist levies, among others. In Germany, income tax is shared and distributed across the three levels of government. The share of the tax is not the same for every level of government, with municipal shares being the smallest. However, the principle of shared use and local autonomy over the money that is devolved is baked into how that income tax is spent. The local business tax is the most important source of revenue for local municipalities in Germany. Self-employed persons, including doctors and accountants, are exempt from it. The tax is calculated on company annual profits in the area and municipal involvement is in the tax multiplier.

I am not suggesting that all of these can or should be used here in the UK, but they are examples of what can be done when there is real political will to unleash the opportunities for local areas’ social, economic and environmental potential and to reduce regional inequalities. This can be achieved only when pinned to real fiscal devolution. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s reply on the Government’s thinking on this issue, not just on spending decentralisation and structural changes. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Deputy Chairman of Committees 5:45, 15 March 2023

My Lords, I want to make a brief contribution to this debate, because it goes to the heart of the discussion about whether we believe in decentralisation and about the role of local government in a decentralised country.

The levelling up White Paper says:

“We’ll usher in a revolution in local democracy.”

Later on, it states that local leaders in other countries have

“much greater revenue-raising powers”,

a point that the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, has just made. As I said at Second Reading, there is nothing about greater revenue-raising powers in the Bill, and the probing amendment that we have just heard moved puts that right by initiating a broader discussion.

I welcome some of the announcements in the Budget about devolving more powers to mayoral authorities and allowing local authorities to retain more of the business rates, but devolving greater ability to spend central government money and keeping more of their own money is not actually the move towards a more self-sufficient, independent and confident local government that many of us would like to see.

I take this opportunity to briefly restate a suggestion that I made in January. Over the next 10 years, some £25 billion in fuel duty will disappear as we all buy electric vehicles, and the revenue foregone will be met by road pricing, now made possible by in-car technology —a transition that successive Governments have ducked but, I suspect, will not be able to duck much longer. However, that revenue from road pricing should not go to the Treasury or central government; it should complement the existing revenue from parking and congestion charges, where it would logically sit, and go to the larger units of local government which we have been debating today. That would give local government greater autonomy and a sounder basis for local taxation than the increasingly discredited and out-of-date council tax.

There are other ways of raising local revenue, and the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, touched on a few. However, in replying to this debate, I wonder whether my noble friend can show just a little bit of ankle on the Government’s thinking—whether they are really interested in empowering genuine local democracy by giving the sort of powers implied in this amendment.

Photo of Lord Jackson of Peterborough Lord Jackson of Peterborough Conservative

My Lords, I wish to speak briefly to this very good and interesting probing amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Young, who I know has great expertise in local government. We represented different parts of the London Borough of Ealing in different capacities over many years.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, has not compared apples with apples but apples with pears. We are a unitary state—we are not a federal state like Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy or France, where they have regional government and a culture of accretion of power to the local level. Therefore, we have to have some central sanction and control of the disbursal of funds. So I do not think that the noble Lord is necessarily comparing the situation that we are in wholly accurately.

However, the noble Lord makes a very astute point about the hoarding of power, particularly financial power, by the Treasury. Any Minister will tell you that, over the years, the Treasury has not wanted to give power away and has wanted to bring in power. The noble Lord is absolutely right that far too much of the funding of core local services is in effect subject to the begging-bowl approach, as enunciated by Andy Street, the executive mayor of the West Midlands.

The problem with the situation that we now have—the disparity of local councils being responsible to their electorate for decisions, in effect, taken centrally—is that central government of whatever party is in power gets the income in and can make those judgments based on its manifesto, but it is local councillors and officers who are accountable and often take the brickbats for failures. For instance, many people have argued for many years about residential real estate investment trusts leveraging private sector money to provide new, good-quality housing for young people in particular. The Treasury has never really advanced that properly, and local government could be very much involved in it. Social care is another area. All Governments should look at tax breaks for providing extra care facilities—in terms of nutrition, housing, exercise and so on—for old people from the age of 60 all the way through to death, as many countries have across the world. That is an example of a central government policy that could also help local government.

I have great sympathy for the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. I hope there is further debate on it. It cannot be right that we cannot follow other modern liberal democracies such as the United States where local authorities and mayors have the capacity, for instance, to raise funds for the issuance of bonds, local infrastructure and capital projects. We have very restrictive financial and legal rules in this country that prevent us doing the same. On that basis, we have begun a good debate and I look to my noble friends on the Front Bench to run with it and, as my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham said, show some ankle, as it is long overdue.

Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Jackson of Peterborough, we have begun the debate. That is the intention of this probing amendment, because we must have it.

Today’s Budget decentralises—but does not devolve—some powers, although not fiscal ones, to combined authorities, which is welcome but comparatively minor. In other words, if a combined authority was able to adjust a block grant and make different decisions on how to commit expenditure from it, that would be welcome. However, it is not a fiscal policy. As the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, said, it would be helpful if the Government could explain their thinking on devolving real fiscal powers.

I would pick up the noble Lord, Lord Jackson, on one statement. He said that we are not a unitary state. That would be hard to explain in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and it goes to the heart of the problem as I see it. Substantial devolved powers, including fiscal ones, reside in Scotland, Wales and, theoretically, Northern Ireland that do not apply in England. Yet England is a country of 56 million people. It is far too big to operate out of centralised control in Whitehall, but there is a very strong argument for saying that, in terms of Treasury control and the Government’s desire to do things on a hub and spoke model in which all the financial resources are controlled in London, England is a unitary state.

I want to add one thing to the excellent contribution from my noble friend Lord Scriven and the other contributions from the noble Lords, Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Jackson of Peterborough, which I really appreciated. Can the Government explain why Scotland and Wales can have fiscal powers but no constituent part of England is permitted to have them? That is the nub of the problem, and it is why starting the debate on this issue is very important.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I rise to add to the political breadth of this debate and to offer Green support for the introduction of this amendment from the noble Lords, Lord Scriven and Lord Shipley. Localism is at the absolute heart of Green politics, but I think we have seen right across your Lordships’ Chamber a great desire for an end in England to the incredible concentration of power and resources in Westminster.

It is noteworthy that the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, cited the Tory Mayor of the West Midlands. I will cite a 2020 report from the Local Government Association entitled Fiscal Devolution, and I should declare at this point that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The foreword of that report, written by the then Conservative chair of the Local Government Association People and Places Board, says that greater fiscal freedom is “crucial” for “genuine devolution”. So that is another Conservative voice adding to the voices we have heard from around your Lordships’ Chamber.

To pick up the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Jackson, some of the comparisons made have been with federal states, which are quite different from England. The report, however, looks extensively at the Netherlands, which is much more comparable, and how its model of local tax-raising powers is used to meet local needs. It is worth thinking about: we do not want a race to the bottom—certainly the Greens do not—but we could see a race to the top. There is increasingly huge competition for human resources—for people—and to be a desirable, attractive, healthy place to live. We could see a real race to the top if local councils had the power to raise funds by themselves and use them according to their own preferences.

It is interesting that we are conducting this debate on the day of the Budget. About an hour ago, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities issued a press release entitled “Levelling up at heart of Budget”. It trumpets investment zones, in respect of which Westminster is to decide where the money will go; it trumpets levelling-up partnerships, in respect of which Westminster is to decide where the money will go. Westminster is very much keeping control of the purse strings. This is not any kind of devolution of power or resources. Those two things have to go together; otherwise, devolution is meaningless.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government) 6:00, 15 March 2023

My Lords, I thank my noble friends Lord Scriven and Lord Shipley for raising this important part of the levelling-up agenda. I of course also thank the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, for linking it to the estimable White Paper on levelling up which, in many ways, has pointed to the importance of full devolution being equated with autonomy over local funding.

At the moment—I have probably said this before in the Chamber—we have the delegation of powers and funding from the centre to local government, be it combined authorities or local councils. This is therefore an important debate because, if we really want to be on the path to devolution, we have to address the issue of more autonomy and fiscal powers for local government.

The Minister may wish to pause at this point and take time over the weekend to refer to a House of Commons report that called for more autonomy and fiscal powers for local government. To be fair, it is 10 years old but sometimes, these big changes take a long time. It was published by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which was of course all-party. I draw the Minister’s attention to two elements of the conclusion, and I hope she will then have time to read more of it:

“Power and finance must go together if local government is to become an equal partner… any attempt to make the relationship between central and local government more balanced would be meaningless without giving local government its own source of revenue… to achieve fully the potential of localism, a key plank of the Government’s policy platform, local government requires financial freedoms.”

The report stated that the Government, under the same political colours as now, should consider giving local authorities in England a share of the existing income tax for England. The committee did not propose a change in income tax rates, but:

“The concept of tax transparency would allow local people to see more clearly what their taxes pay for locally and encourage them to hold local councils to account for their expenditure.”

I agree. There is obviously much more in that report.

The debate here is about having real devolution. If Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can have it, why not Yorkshire, the population of which is bigger than each of them?

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Why not Hertfordshire, with a population of 1.2 million people? I join the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Young, for drawing us back to the White Paper and the ambition contained therein. One of the key themes of discussion on the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill so far has been the missed opportunity to tackle some of the critical financial issues that, in my view, are holding local government back from playing as full a part as it can in delivering the Bill’s stated agenda and missions. There is a significant lack of ambition in not taking this further, described by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, as the elephant in the room. The noble Lords, Lord Scriven and Lord Shipley, rightly highlighted that a key aspect of this is the extent to which the Government seek to reduce the current chronic overcentralisation of decision-making in the UK by empowering CCAs with enhanced fiscal powers. A great deal more could be done in that regard.

In the probing and thoughtful report referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, the LGA carried out a comparative study of fiscal devolution in the UK, Holland, Germany and Switzerland. It concluded that the UK should be working with local government to explore the full extent of fiscal devolution and what it could add to ensure that authorities have the strongest financial muscle to deliver what they know their areas most need. Commenting on the Netherlands, for example, the report says that

“fiscal freedom means that the broad suite of local taxes available to Dutch municipalities, and their tendency to collaborate cross borders, gives local government more placemaking levers while

That goes right to the heart of this argument.

Even with the so-called trail-blazer authorities in Manchester and the West Midlands, one often gets the impression that achieving the fiscal freedoms they feel they need to serve their communities is like getting blood out of a stone. In previous sessions we commented frequently on the regressive, unhelpful and expensive method of creating multiple funding pots that means councils have to waste their precious funds pulling bids together.

If the amendment proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Scriven and Lord Shipley, were adopted, or something very similar to it, it would set into legislation the devolution of fiscal powers that, in my view, should always have been in the Bill. On Budget Day, it is important to say that no one in local government believes that a magic money tree is coming our way. I quote the LGA report again:

“Fiscal devolution entails the same suite of local taxes as we currently have in the UK, except with a higher level of devolution of central taxes. Unlike with fiscal freedom, this would not necessitate the introduction of ‘new’ taxes, but rather a reconsideration of the obligations and duties of each level of government. If fiscal devolution deals were done on the basis of local need for finance, following this German model would mean local authorities could fund their own care services in line with their own requirements.”

Europe also benefits from federalised banking institutions. How much more ambitious could local government be if that were the case here?

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, referred to all finance being controlled from London. I am pleased to say that, in Wales, the Labour Government have already developed this and are making great strides in developing local banking institutions. Incidentally, Wales is also undertaking a comprehensive review of council tax.

Earlier this week a Question was asked in your Lordships’ House on the huge potential of pension funds in contributing to fiscal devolution. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, spoke about the extent to which local government and local decision-making is controlled by national finance, with council tax set by Parliament, business rates set by the Treasury and even rents set by DLUHC. That does not make any sense. It is a nonsense, as the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said, to end up needing a pothole fund. When that announcement was made earlier today in the Budget, my first comment was, “Why don’t you fund local government properly? Then we could fix our own potholes.”

These revenue-raising powers are important to local government. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, rightly pointed at self-sufficient, independent and confident local government, and finding ways of delivering that through a different fiscal settlement. That is really important. We are not a federal state, as the noble Lord, Lord Jackson, said, but surely an aim of the Bill must be to create the kind of state where we can have a much more effective system of fiscal devolution, with local government having the freedoms to fund itself properly.

Photo of Lord Jackson of Peterborough Lord Jackson of Peterborough Conservative

The noble Baroness is making a very good point, but she will no doubt agree with me that sometimes things go wrong— for instance in the recent experiences in Slough and Thurrock —with inappropriate spending or error. In the absence of the Audit Commission, which I remind noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches was abolished under the coalition Government, surely there must be some sanction at central government for inappropriate expenditure. It may be just incompetence, and not even at a criminal level. In the absence of an equivalent to the National Audit Office for local government, there must be ways for Ministers to exercise discretion on financial issues in local government on behalf of taxpayers.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I do not disagree that audit is required. We debated that earlier on the Bill. The authorities mentioned are Conservative authorities, as in Northampton, where my good friends in Corby lost their council because of the actions of a council of another political persuasion. That is a political point, which I probably should not make here.

A proper consideration of the role of further fiscal powers, with full engagement of local government— I am not suggesting that this is done to us because it would go against all the principles that we are talking about—could provide the basis for an empowered, innovative and dynamic shift for CCAs and their constituent members, sitting alongside the completion of the fair funding review, which has been outstanding for years now and which we have discussed previously.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My Lords, Amendment 128 tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Scriven and Lord Shipley, relates to the potential fiscal powers of combined county authorities, although we were slowly moving into a debate on English devolution, which we should leave for another time.

As set out in the levelling-up White Paper, level 3 devolution deal areas can look to finance local initiatives for residents and businesses. These include regeneration through a mayoral precept on council tax, and supplements on business rates. The Government are already considering putting powers in the hands of local people through greater fiscal freedoms and are exploring this further fiscal devolution, initially through the trail-blazer devolution deals with Greater Manchester and the West Midlands combined authorities. Negotiations are ongoing and progressing well. It says in my notes that they are expected to conclude in early 2023, so I assume that it will be very soon.

Clauses 16 and 17 already provide the mechanism for such fiscal powers to be conferred on to a combined county authority where the Secretary of State considers that doing so meets the statutory tests—that is important; I think it is what my noble friend Lord Jackson was talking about—where the area consents, and where Parliament approves. I therefore suggest that there is no need for an addition to Clause 48, which relates to the boundaries of a CCA’s general powers.

I want to answer the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, on these small competitive funding pots. I know that noble Lords are particularly concerned about the ones for levelling up. The Government recognise the inefficiencies in and complexity of the decision-making and reporting burdens that result from this number of local funding pots and the strings attached to them. I have to say, some competitive funding for individual pots can be a good thing; for example, it can support innovation. We recognise that a number of different funds have become difficult for councils to navigate and deliver. As the Levelling-Up Secretary told the committee last year, ideally, we would like to move to a situation where there are fewer funding streams; we are working on that.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, that, when the Bill passes, I will certainly read the report. However, at the moment, all my reading time is taken up with the Bill.

I hope that the explanation I have given reassures noble Lords that the Bill already captures the amendment’s intent, and that the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat 6:15, 15 March 2023

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. It has shown that this is not a party-political issue, but an issue for those of us who believe that you cannot deal with levelling up unless you give real fiscal powers to local areas that require them, to be able to make autonomous decisions in the locality on where to invest and where to make the biggest changes. It is also about stopping this particular view in England that local areas have to look to Westminster to be able to make decisions that many local areas across the vast majority of the western world, whether they are federal or not, can take.

I reiterate what my noble friend Lord Shipley said: we are not a unitary state. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, fiscal devolution exists. We are talking predominantly about 56 million people in England, where fiscal devolution is totally off the table at the moment. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, was quite right to point out that, in itself, the Bill does not bring about fiscal devolution; it brings about departmental decentralisation, with predetermined spending limits being able to be made a little differently at the local level. Everything that the Minister said reinforces that view. Nothing in the Bill significantly gives further fiscal devolution to local areas if they so wish. In fact, she made the same mistake again: she talked about the trail-blazers in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester that have been announced today. As welcome as they are, they are not fiscal devolution. They are the decentralisation of departmental spending decisions; that is the fundamental issue.

This debate, on all sides of the Chamber, has stipulated that the Government are not going far enough and the Bill does not go far enough. We may have to return to this on Report, but at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 128 withdrawn.

Clause 48 agreed.

Clauses 49 to 52 agreed.

Clause 53: Guidance

Amendments 129 and 130 not moved.

Clause 53 agreed.

Clause 54 agreed.

Schedule 4: Combined County Authorities: Consequential Amendments