Local Government Reform: Greater London — [Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 17th October 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade) 9:30 am, 17th October 2018

Before we start, you can see that we are not oversubscribed. I would like the summing up to start in an hour’s time. Say everything you need to say, but please do not feel that you need to take all the time if it is not appropriate. I call Andrew Rosindell to move the motion.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered local government reform in Greater London.

Thank you very much, Mr Hosie, and good morning to all. I am grateful for this opportunity to open what I hope will be a wide-ranging debate on the structure and responsibilities of local government across London and the need to embrace the need for fundamental reform that will better serve the people of this great capital of our nation in the decades to come. I wish to begin a conversation involving both sides of the House with the constituents that we represent.

Our United Kingdom capital of London comprises an amazing patchwork of counties, cities, boroughs, royal boroughs, towns, communities, villages, hamlets and estates. I say “London” because that is the name of our national capital—in truth, in 2018, the lines of where London begins and ends are rather blurred. There is in fact much confusion between London as the capital of the United Kingdom, where Parliament and Government sit; London as Greater London, which was how our predecessors decided to construct the shape and boundaries of the city in the 1960s; and London as a wider region that includes what many people still call the home counties.

It is time to reassess whether Greater London, as created in 1964 with the formation of London boroughs, or the particular form of London government that was created in 1998 with a Mayor and Assembly, are fit for purpose in the years to come. We have reached a point where serious reform is needed. I hope all Members agree that we should not dismiss change as too difficult to tackle. We have a duty to look at how we can evolve London government to better suit the needs of Londoners and the wider region around our capital. Let us not be afraid to reconfigure how London government works and to embrace reform and renewal—in doing so, let us return power to local communities, where it belongs, and restore local identities that are rooted in English history but are now in danger of being lost.

As colleagues will know only too well, I am deeply proud of being the Member of Parliament for my wonderful home town of Romford, a traditional Essex market town that has existed since medieval times. Since 1964, it has fallen under the remit of the London borough of Havering, the borough on the most eastern side of what is now called Greater London. Let me tell the House that, despite more than 50 years of being a so-called London borough, Romford, and Havering generally, is still very much part of Essex. Whatever local government structures and boundaries are imposed by Whitehall, the true identity of local people has never been lost and never will be. People in my borough are Essex through and through, and they are proud of their heritage—indeed, becoming a London borough did not mean that Romford and Havering stopped being part of Essex.

Essex is a real place that has evolved over many centuries. It is a historic county with its own identity and distinct culture, combined with religious, social, sporting and business networks. Our postal address is “Romford, Essex”. We cheer for the Essex county cricket team. Our local regiment is the Essex Regiment, which has been awarded the freedom of Havering. Our Church of England parishes fall within the diocese of Chelmsford. Our identity is defined by geography, not by local government structures, which change regularly, depending on Government policy at the time and ever-moving electoral boundaries. A change in the administration of local services in the 1960s did not end our town or borough’s connection with the county of Essex. Today we fall under a London-wide authority, but my constituents continue to cherish their Essex identity. Good for them—I feel exactly the same.

This is not unique to Essex or any other part of Greater London—people from Kent, Surrey, Hertfordshire and indeed Middlesex also value their county identities. London boroughs may no longer fall under the remit of county councils, but we are still very much part of what are known as the traditional or proper counties of England. These are real places with historical, geographical and social identities that have existed throughout the ages and that should be fully recognised as integral to the identities of our towns and boroughs today, irrespective of local government structures at any given point. These structures have come and gone in London over the years, with the London County Council, the Greater London Council, the Greater London Authority, and now the Mayor of London—just as Havering was once under the Essex County Council, followed by the GLC and then the GLA. I hope hon. Members agree that none of those changes should be allowed to erode true local identities.

I raise that issue because it forms the basis of my next argument. Local government in London should be just that: local. It should be as localised as possible, so that local people are able to control what happens in their communities and towns or on their doorstep. Remote and centralised regional government that fails to understand local identities and that rules from the centre, forgetting about the needs of the wider areas of the London region, is never going to be popular. Just like the GLC before it, I fear that the GLA is heading in the same direction. The Greater London Authority and Mayor of London are failing to serve all areas within Greater London effectively. It is clear that the project has expanded too far, grown too powerful, and has become too interfering, too centralised, too bureaucratic, too costly and utterly remote from the needs of the real people, particularly in areas such as Romford and other parts of outer London.

Since the creation of a directly elected Mayor and an Assembly in 2000 provided for a so-called strong mayor model, there has been a clear contrast between the powers of the Mayor and those of the Assembly. The subsequent Greater London Authority Act 2007 accorded the Mayor even greater powers in respect of functions, spanning across planning, housing, large developments, skills and training. While it is true that the Assembly’s powers were also strengthened in 2007, the provisions were too little and too late to provide a proper check on the mayoralty. A comparative analysis of our friends across the pond in New York and of other cities such as Tokyo and Berlin show that their councils enjoy actual powers of scrutiny, which ours in London do not.

It is time to reform the whole structure of local government. I shall set out what the Government and we in the House should consider as a basis for reform. First, the powers of the Mayor should be strictly limited to what borough councils cannot do effectively for themselves. The so-called London plan should be dumped completely, and the power to decide how best to plan and develop our communities and boroughs should rest with the people who are elected to do that job. The Government can help by allowing the development of new towns beyond London, but councils must also play their part in ensuring we build the homes that are needed. Let us give boroughs back the power and trust them to make true local decisions in their local communities.

Why do we need a second tier for planning, when what is required is a more effective means to make local decisions in the interest of local communities, with a faster turnaround, so we can build the homes we need across the region? I accept that there is a need for co-ordination across the entire London region on things such as transport and major infrastructure projects, but the Mayor should be a facilitator or an organiser who brings together local authorities and public bodies to make things happen. Funding for projects should go directly to the boroughs, bypassing the bureaucracy at City Hall.

Secondly, policing should go back to being truly local. Each borough should have its own borough commander, and the tri-borough system should be ended or reformed. The leader of each council or their deputy should have the political responsibility for policing within that borough. Powers currently centralised in City Hall should come back to the town hall. I believe that leaders of boroughs are better placed to respond to the needs of their communities and to work with a dedicated police force, which knows and understands its patch better than anyone else.

Thirdly, the London Assembly should be replaced with something like a council of London, comprised of elected council leaders from the region. I say the region, because this goes way beyond the now outdated boundaries of the 1960s model of Greater London. Transport affects the people of a much wider area—I would call it the UK capital region. The slimmed-down, London-wide authority should primarily focus on transport, which clearly must be considered regionally as it goes way beyond the London boroughs. The M25 extends way beyond Greater London, and motorways, A roads and an expanding road network lead into London. The London Underground stretches from Amersham to Epping, neither of which falls within the Greater London boundaries, yet they have underground stations. Trains bring in commuters from across the south-east and other parts of the region. Airports stretch from London Heathrow to London Southend, and include London Luton, London Stansted and London Gatwick, most of which are not in Greater London. There needs to be a serious rethink of transport in the entire region, and that is what I believe should be the focus of the newly restructured authority for the London region. It is no longer relevant to think of transport just in the context of Greater London. That outdated model needs to go.

The new council of democratically elected leaders would have real authority to speak up for their areas, and they would cost a lot less than the current Assembly. They would understand what is required locally because they would be elected locally and would have an incentive to make things work for their boroughs. With a much stronger hand, they would also be empowered to scrutinise the Mayor—or the first leader, as I would rename the role—to ensure that everything they do is for the purpose of facilitating services rather than becoming an alternative centre of political power away from local communities.

We must also respect and appreciate the distinctiveness of London’s areas. It is ludicrous that the Mayor of London has such an expansive and supreme authority over a vast swathe of southern England. The City of Westminster, with all its grandeur, has very little in common with boroughs such as Havering, Hillingdon, Bromley or Enfield. Across our region are districts with totally different needs, but as power has become more centralised, local needs have become more neglected. It is time for reform.

The unfair allocation of funds is also a major issue in boroughs such as mine—the London Borough of Havering has been scandalously impacted by inadequate funding settlements over the decades due to flaws in the current formula and funding system. The Minister may not be aware that Havering is the lowest-funded east London borough per head of population. Some London boroughs receive more than twice as much per head. How can that be right? That is despite Havering’s having the highest proportion of elderly people across London, many of whom are deeply reliant on social care provision. That dire funding shortfall has forced my council drastically to reduce spending or increase council tax just to stay afloat, yet we send £400 a year per head of population to City Hall. The result is that council tax on a £4.5 million property in Westminster is substantially less than it is on a £365,000 property in Havering. How can that be right? That huge disparity must be addressed. It punishes lifelong residents of the borough and leaves many pensioners—it particularly affects elderly people—struggling to get by.

Devolving power back to local councils is exactly what a Conservative Government should be aiming to do. Why should councils not have the ability to come together to take on the management of public services in the area for which they are responsible? If Havering Council wishes to take over the management of the NHS, why should it not be given the opportunity to do so? If it prepared a business case, worked out the finances and submitted a bid to the Government, and if—and only if—the bid stacked up, why should it not be able to manage health services in the borough?

It is unlikely that one council could do that alone, but a group of councils could. For instance, if Havering formed a group with Barking and Dagenham and Redbridge, with Brentwood and Epping—the boroughs on the Essex side of my constituency—or with whatever other grouping came together, and put in a bid for an integrated service to operate the NHS, an adult college or some other public body, would that not be the obvious way to devolve power back to our local communities? That would give real democratic control over large areas of the state and allow many different models to be developed. Let us think out of the box and embrace such new ideas. I believe we must empower local boroughs in London to take back control—they know what their local communities need best—and end the never-ending centralisation of power in City Hall or Whitehall.

London, as the UK’s capital, needs clearly defined boundaries. The City of London has always been the heart of our capital for trade and finance, with the City of Westminster as the centre of Parliament and Government, but our capital is wider than that. It includes some or all other central areas—boroughs such as Kensington and Chelsea, and parts of Camden, Lambeth, Southwark, Islington, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and so on. That is the central capital area. It is simply not right to say that the entirety of Greater London is the capital of the UK—that is a big confusion. Very few people living in towns such as Romford, Sutton, Enfield, Bexley, Croydon or Ruislip consider themselves to be living in the capital. Greater London is not the capital; the central area is the capital. It is time we properly defined where the capital actually starts and ends. It should be the central area that I have described. It should include the central areas where special measures for policing, security, transport and development are required to suit the needs of a global city. Beyond that, different priorities are needed for the wider London region beyond the actual capital. I urge the Government to take powers away from City Hall and restore them for towns and boroughs beyond the central London area.

Finally, I believe that it is also time to review the boundaries and names of London boroughs. So many anomalies divide communities because old boundaries have not been reviewed for decades. They are no longer relevant and it is time they were reviewed to suit local communities. To give examples from my own area, Rush Green, where I was born, is divided between Havering and Barking and Dagenham—it is a ludicrous boundary that runs down a road and divides a community. Those areas are all part of Romford, but we stick to these old boundaries from years ago that are no longer relevant. Another example is Chadwell Heath, another part of Romford that is not in my borough but divided between the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and the London Borough of Redbridge. I know hon. Members representing constituencies across London can come up with lots of examples of similar situations in which pointless divisions exist. Those should be resolved with local consultation to ensure that boroughs fit local communities and meet the needs of local people.

I believe that restoring local identities as well as renaming boroughs where local people wish to do so should be on the reform agenda. Shepway District Council in Kent was quite sensibly renamed as Folkestone and Hythe District Council, dumping the pointless, artificial name that had no resonance with people. A borough such as Havering—that is the nice name of a small country village in my constituency, but a name that does not represent the communities of that London borough—could be renamed the London Borough of Romford and Hornchurch, which is more representative of the borough’s two major towns. We should have a general review of names that match local towns’ identities to those of local people, so that they can feel pride in their boroughs.

I can talk about other boroughs but I am hesitant to do so because MPs representing those boroughs are not here. The London Borough of Waltham Forest has a completely artificial name—a bit of Walthamstow and a bit of Epping Forest—while the area of Redbridge is actually Ilford, and Hounslow is Chiswick and Brentford. We need to go back to sensible names so that people identify with the communities that they live in. Those 1960s names need to be reviewed and it would be incredibly popular if the Government led a review and gave local people the chance to decide their boundaries and restore traditional names. Who knows, Minister? Perhaps names like Hampstead, Paddington, Stoke Newington, Wembley or Finsbury could be restored. Replacing the names of boroughs that do not resonate with the history and identity of their communities would be extremely popular.

I have floated many new ideas for a reform of London government, some of which I hope hon. Members and the Minister will consider seriously. Whatever our views, let us begin a debate on and work towards the change that will bring about better government across the whole of the London region, the capital of our United Kingdom, and, I believe, the greatest city on earth.

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords) 9:53 am, 17th October 2018

Thank you, Mr Hosie. I have debated matters of English local government in this room on several occasions, and I remark now, as I remarked then, that I quite often feel as though I have gatecrashed someone else’s party. On this occasion, I feel as though people have got the wrong date for the party; I have never been to a debate in this Chamber that has been so sparsely attended, and it feels really weird to be called to reply to the debate when only the mover of the motion, Andrew Rosindell, has spoken. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to make some remarks.

Although I may not have been invited to the party, I sense that the music is very similar to that which we hear north of the border. Some of people’s concerns and desires for reform of local government administration in London and, indeed, throughout England are motivated by feelings very similar to those that drove the cause for Scottish devolution and that are now driving the cause for Scottish independence. They are feelings of remoteness, of not being in charge of the place in which you live, and of not having a shared sense of identity with others who live in that place. I am therefore sympathetic to such debates, and I would say that they are actually all part of one grand debate about how we reform the antiquated structure that is the United Kingdom, in order to create governance on these islands that is more fit for the 21st century.

That said, there is a world of difference between the devolution of legislative authority to a nation within a political union, and the decentralisation of administration within the largest country of that political union, which is England. I want to speak as an observer in the debate.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to express the Scottish Government’s view on the devolution of powers that are currently held in Holyrood to towns and cities of Scotland. I am sure the people there would like to take control of their lives and have proper devolution from Holyrood to other areas of Scotland—

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade)

Please stay within the context of the debate, which is rather narrow.

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords)

The Minister’s intervention was perhaps tangential, but I do not mind replying to it. Of course, I cannot speak on behalf of the Scottish Government, but from what I observe, over the last 11 years they have driven the idea of putting power in the hands of local communities, through their work in the highlands and islands of Scotland; through their work to relax controls on local authorities; and, in particular, through their work on the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the community land fund, which gives local communities the ability to get together, without reference to their local authority, and take over derelict parts of land or buildings to bring them into community use. There is lots of good stuff going on in Scotland.

I will not prolong matters, because this is not the most subscribed debate that I have taken part in, but let me make three brief observations for the record. The first is that I believe, just as I believe that governance of Scotland should be a matter for the people who live there, that the governance of London should be a matter for those who live there—that principle needs to be established. I remember the dangers of doing things without popular consent. I was a London councillor in Hackney from 1986-1993—I represented the Defoe ward in Stoke Newington—and even then, in the mid-1980s, there was a genuine sense of grievance among many people about the fact that the borough of Stoke Newington had been abolished 20 years before. They identified much more with that area, as the hon. Member for Romford said, than with the new borough council that was created in 1964.

I understand the need for local identity, and I think it is vital that, as the debate continues, attempts are made to engage with the people of London about the various options that are available for the governance of this great city. I know not what the plans of the Mayor, the GLA, or the London boroughs are, but I hope and would welcome any initiatives that look towards engaging the public through a “People’s Assembly” or through a commission that will look at particular structures for the future.

Secondly, we ought to define the principles on which reform should take place as well as the criteria and the objectives that we are trying to achieve. Central to that must be the notion of equality and fairness across this great city. To that end, I think we ought to address the elephant in the room that no one has yet talked about: the City of London Corporation, which operates almost like a reverse-Bantustan in the City and commands a great and disproportionate amount of power and wealth in the capital. Any reform that does not look at how that can be distributed more fairly across the city is probably not worth undertaking.

My final point, which refers to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Romford, is that in these debates—I think that this is true in Scotland, England, and throughout every advanced democracy—it is important to make a distinction between democratic political control by communities and the administration of services. Too often, we get the two confused. That means, for example, that we end up saying, “It’s impossible to run a certain service on too local a level, and therefore we won’t bother letting local people have control of that”, or, “We won’t bother decentralising and setting up structures that allow people to govern a local area, because they cannot control or manage a service on that basis; it’s completely uneconomic.”

In a model whereby an agency provides a service in a public interest framework across a wider area, however—the police are an apt example—but within which local communities and local councils are able to act as the client for that service and to say what they want from the agency, there is a way of giving people democratic control over what is happening in their area without them having to be the managers of the individual service. The same is true for pretty much any major service. In fact, the same is now true for a lot of back-room services, such as information technology or administration, which would probably be much better organised on a larger scale to service a wide range of authorities beneath them that command and direct what needs to be done.

If we do that, we begin to open new possibilities for new, much more localised and decentralised structures that relate to local communities. Such structures would allow people to get much more involved than they are, and at the same time to retain services in a public interest framework and in public ownership. If we were to do that—London might be the place to start—we could play catch-up with much of the rest of Europe, where we can find much more democratic local decision making and, crucially, much greater levels of participation in local affairs and elections than we have in this country. At the end of the day, that is the thing that we all need to address: no matter where we are in the United Kingdom, it is rare for the majority of people to take part in an election for their local council. That is surely something that we need to change.

I am glad that this debate is getting things started—I hope—and next time perhaps we can attract a few more people, in particular Members of Parliament from the capital city, to engage in it. We can take matters forward at that point.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution) 10:02 am, 17th October 2018

This is a really interesting debate, which is broader than London. It could be argued that if we develop a real settlement that pushes power down to communities, that ought to benefit every community in England. That will be the spirit in which I approach my response to some of the points that have been made.

A lot of the devolution debate and discussion, certainly over the past five or six years, has been about trying to get power from Westminster down to the next level, wherever that might be; in London, it is the capital, but elsewhere it will be metro areas or even some county deals in which counties have come together. That has been necessary because we are still a very centralised country, and too much power is contained not in this place—people who work here who believe that they are powerful are seriously deluded—but in Whitehall, where it still sits. We want to wrestle as much power as possible from civil servants, who are disconnected from the communities that are affected by the decisions that they make, and give that power back to local people.

That has to be at the most appropriate level, because the organisation of services is complex. Some are absolutely rooted in a localised geography, but in other cases it will make far more sense for a service to be decided and delivered at a different level—whether it is a district, a metropolitan or London borough, London itself, or a regional grouping—but it has to be right for that circumstance and for the decision that is being devolved down. The assumption should always be local.

If any power is devolved, a test should be in place to ask the question: where is it best to place this new power that is being devolved? For example, in places where we see devolution of the adult education budget, there has not really been a conversation about whether a combined authority or even a Greater London arrangement is the best place for that budget to sit, versus a local authority. That is odd, because that debate is taking place in other areas—such as Greater Manchester, which has the most advanced health devolution settlement in England; that settlement is devolved to the 10 local authorities, not to the combined authority or to the Mayor.

This move that we are taking as a nation is interesting, but it is not neat, it is not pretty and it is massively confusing for a lot of people. That does not mean that it is not necessary. We need to prove concept and prove that devolution can be made to work. We need to prove that to people who do not believe that devolution can work, and who believe that to get fairness and equity across the country, we should organise from the capital so that everyone gets the same. They are the people we need to convince.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford

The hon. Gentleman is making a lot of good points, and we agree on many things. Does he accept that an area such as mine, right on the edge of Greater London, is totally different from places such as Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, or Islington? More powers should be given back to us in our area so that we can work with the Essex councils; that is where we are. Does he agree that centralising everything in London is not the way forward? A central area is obviously needed as our capital, but the wider London region has different needs and priorities. That should be much more decentralised.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

I agree with that point. If the assumption is devolution, the bar to sending something up to a higher level should be high. There should be a proper and rigorous test in place. A danger in the development of new structures or institutions of local government in city regions—perhaps this is more of a danger outside London than in it—is that if real power is not devolved from Westminster and Whitehall to those regions, they will, by the nature of government and politics, take up power to justify their existence.

To me, the responsibility for that lies with local politicians who must ensure that they are absolutely clear about what a devolved settlement looks like for their neighbourhoods and communities. There is, however, also pressure on the Government to prove that they can really devolve power and responsibility down. In a lot of the country, people do not believe that the Government are listening to what they say. I shall not stray from the subject of the debate, but anyone who speaks to people in Lancashire at the moment will find that they are massively frustrated that their local decision to reject fracking was overturned by a Government hundreds of miles away. If we are serious about devolving power, it has to be the power that people are asking for: the power to determine what type of place they want to live in and their families to grow up in.

That is different from identity and people’s sense of belonging. I feel strongly that that is a complex debate—we could have a debate for an hour and a half on what identity is and means, because it is complex. Devolution so far has not been about trying to rewrite people’s historical and rooted identity, or about changing the entrance signs to places where people live to names that they do not recognise. That is very different from the 1974 reorganisation outside London, which tried to do just that.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that point. That is exactly the problem we face. A “Welcome to Essex” sign has been placed on the boundary between Romford and Brentwood. Suddenly, we have been told that we are no longer Essex, because Essex County Council will only put the sign on the boundary of its area. That is nonsense. The traditional identity of the counties is being lost because of a failure by local government bureaucrats to understand true local identities. I would understand if the sign read, “You are now entering the Essex County Council area”, or whatever they want to call it, but instead it reads, “Welcome to Essex”. In my area, we are Essex, and a lot of people resent that identity being removed because of a failure to put signage in the correct location.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

Perhaps I may prove my credentials. When I became the leader of Oldham Council, it stood out to me just how frustrated people were about their historical identities being challenged by a local authority that was artificially created in 1974. It did not work for either party: Oldhamers were frustrated that people in the surrounding district seemed to have an angst about them, because of this issue; and people in the district were frustrated because they did not feel that their identity was valued by the local authority. One of the first things I did on taking control of the council, therefore, was to change all the boundary signs back to reflect the district crest and the local identities of those places, which I believe are important.

That is sometimes a cause of confusion. The lines we draw on maps for administrative convenience—basically, we are talking about the most efficient administrative area for delivering and organising our public services—are often adopted to create a new brand identity for a place. I see that happening where I am. Oldham, as a place, has one foot in Lancashire and one foot in the west riding of Yorkshire. Some people think they are Mancunian and others think they are Oldhamers, but identities travel even beyond that. It is true of every community in England, including every borough and town in London and Essex, that people do not stay in one place. They travel to work. Their relationships with places, communities, neighbouring towns and the heart of the capital, which Andrew Rosindell referred to, are complicated.

Let me make some practical suggestions. Power has been given to communities through the neighbourhood planning process. Communities can self-organise and decide what physical developments take place in their area, and they get some sense of being able to control what their community looks like at the end of that process. We do not do the same for revenue spend in local government. Think about the scrutiny we give to capital investment. When a capital project is initiated, it has to go through a number of gateways to get sign-off and be approved, and it then goes through evaluation and monitoring. We do not do that for revenue spend. We spend billions of pounds of public money every year, but we do not make the same assessment of whether it is invested in the right place or have a clear view of what return on investment we should expect. Equally, communities generally are not involved in organising that.

There is no reason why people at neighbourhood level—whether that is a ward or a collection of wards that make up a town’s identity, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned—could not organise a community plan to corral all the public services in their area and decide where the local GP practice ought to be or how the police ought to organise. Local people should be able to decide how public servants work together to ensure that services are delivered in the right context for that place.

Clearly, there will always be a role for local authorities, and for strategic authorities that cover issues that naturally transcend local boundaries. We have already heard about transport, but policing now transcends those boundaries, too. Policing is far more complicated than it was before the 1960s, when we had local police forces with their own identities. We need a police force that can meet the challenges of cyber-crime, terrorism, cross-border crime and many other issues, but not at the exclusion of neighbourhood policing.

In some places, because of austerity—let us be clear that it costs money to do this well—and the demands of terrorism, cyber-crime and all the other new crimes that are really stretching the police force, resources have been transferred from neighbourhood level to the centre so the police can meet significant cost demands. People see that, because of austerity, public services are becoming more and more removed from the communities in which they live, and that hugely affects the connection they feel. We should look at that.

We need a clearly articulated devolution framework for the whole of England—London would be a beneficiary of that—rather than ad hoc deals that are agreed behind closed doors. We should not pit one place against another but have a comprehensive settlement—a framework for power to be devolved. We should start at the grassroots and work upwards, with an assumption in favour of devolution. That should be supported by fair funding to meet need and demand in local areas.

That at least would allow us to test the ideas we are debating and to see whether one framework for the whole of England works. Without that, we will always be looking in the rear-view mirror at the consequences of what has been agreed. We need to get organised. We need a plan. This offer has been made before, but Labour Members are willing to work across party lines on the issues that are not party political. Much of this is not party political—it is about people and place.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 10:13 am, 17th October 2018

I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell on securing this debate, which is both hugely important for his constituents and nationally important in the wider framework of devolution. It is very timely and deeply appropriate given the situation we find ourselves in.

The debate has been about the future, but let me dwell for a moment on the history of local government reform in London, which to some extent put us in this situation. I do not have to tell my hon. Friend, who is proud to have been born and bred in Essex, about the 1960 Herbert commission, but it is worth focusing briefly on the Greater London Council years. We can learn a lot from our history. During those years, when the current shadow Chancellor was chairman of the finance committee, what we used to refer to as “loony left” politics came to the fore. Of course, that is now mainstream Labour politics. As someone from the city of Liverpool, I was interested to see the Labour party, at its conference in that city, move back to endorsing the views of Derek Hatton: that councils should set illegal budgets and that there should be a general strike.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

I suppose I ought to intervene, given that I was more or less invited to by that comment. To be absolutely clear—this came from the leadership of the Labour party a couple of years ago, so it is not a new response: we do not support the illegal setting of council budgets. We think councils have been given a rotten settlement, and in many places they struggle to meet their legal obligations.

The question for the Government is how they can provide the resources councils need to be confident that they can set a legal budget that provides security for the people who need it, particularly in adult social care and children’s safeguarding. The failure is not on the part of council leaders. No one proposes setting an illegal budget in any local authority in the country, but there are leaders who say, “We don’t think we can meet our legal obligations if this carries on.” So far, the Government have failed to provide a convincing response.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade)

Order. Now the politics are out of the way, I am sure we will get back to local government reform in Greater London.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Well, of course the GLC was in league, through the Militant movement, with Derek Hatton’s Liverpool Labour party. It is worth focusing on the GLC. Jim McMahon parades the veneer of a gentle left—of herbivorous, lentil-munching, north London lefties—but the people of Liverpool and those who lived under the GLC know what the hard-left Labour party is really like. Labour councillors went around Liverpool handing out 30,000 redundancy notices to the people who worked in that city. As someone from Liverpool, let me take the opportunity to say that we will never forget that we could not get our bodies buried or our bins emptied. That is what the hard left of Militant and Momentum does to cities.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I will in a moment. It is all very well the hon. Gentleman saying that that is not the view of his party, but for a shadow Minister to endorse that view on the main platform on the first day of the conference was an absolute disgrace. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, which will afford him the opportunity to apologise for that, and to apologise to the people of Liverpool for the devastation both there and under the GLC.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade)

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, let me say that I want us to get back to local government reform in London very quickly.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

My response is simple: what on earth does that have to do with local government reorganisation in London? The Minister has an opportunity to lay out something that has been absent during his tenure. What will the Government do to push real power down to local authorities—not just to newly created institutions through deals done behind closed doors? We need a genuine framework that pushes power down to people, communities and neighbourhoods and addresses the issues raised in the debate. That is what we are here to discuss, and we look forward to hearing his reply.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I will take your guidance, Mr Hosie, and segue neatly from history to geography, which was always my favourite subject at school, but let me say briefly that the Labour party does not like the fact that the mask slipped. We should take every opportunity to inform the public in London and in our wider United Kingdom what lies behind that mask.

I move on to the geography of the Greater London Authority. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford has noted that, in fact, the GLA and the Mayor have had some notable success since their establishment. I am sure that he, like me, celebrates the London Olympics hosted by the former Mayor of London, my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford

The Minister ought to be aware that the so-called London Olympics took place in Stratford, which is a traditional part of Essex. I do not object to its being called the London Olympics, but it is a perfect example of a national event in the London region, even though the reality is that the town of Stratford is traditionally part of Essex. There was no mention at all of the county of Essex. That is an example of where things have gone wrong.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Perhaps I should have stuck to history, which may be a slightly safer subject for me to talk about. My hon. Friend may think that it should have been called the Essex Olympics, but I am not sure that that would have had the same international cut-through as the London Olympics. It was a significant event, not just for London—and Essex, where it took place in the traditional Essex town of Stratford—but for our entire nation.

Those Olympics, which were thanks in no small part to the late, great Baroness Jowell and the Mayor of London at the time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, showed how the GLA and London can be at their best. Another previous Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, introduced the congestion charge, which was extremely well implemented and significantly reduced traffic levels in the city. The Oyster card is also hugely popular, which the GLA and the Mayor were responsible for.

My hon. Friend said that today should be the start of the debate about the future shape of mayoralty and local government in London. He will understand that starting the debate for change will be hard; it will be a long road and probably require primary legislation. Most importantly of all, it will require consensus. From the Government’s point of view, we hope any changes would come from a ground-up movement rather than a central diktat from Whitehall. That plays very well with my hon. Friend’s desire for his constituents to have more control of their lives.

We must not forget that the Conservative party is the party of English devolution. We did not create the Mayor of London but we have successfully created six Metro Mayors, who were elected in May 2017. Since that date, a Mayor of Sheffield has been elected and, subject to the consent of the House, next Monday we will finalise the creation of a Mayor north of the Tyne, in Newcastle. Those elections have brought the biggest single transfer of power from Whitehall back to the people of England since the first world war. As Conservatives, we should celebrate that and be deeply proud of it. All those mayoral devolution deals have been about transferring power.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

The Minister talked about the biggest transfer of power since the second world war—

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

The first world war. Does that take into account the power that has been removed from local authorities, particularly on housing and education?

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I assume the shadow Minister is talking about the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the transfer of power up from local authorities to the Mayor across the country. In areas of devolution, it has been done by consensus; he was a leader of one of those local authorities that are now part of the combined authorities, so I guess he would support that.

This debate is very important when looked at in the wider context of English devolution. The Government will shortly publicise their devolution framework, in which we will talk about what devolution should look like in the rest of England and give a clear roadmap for devolution across England, in compliance with a Conservative party manifesto commitment.

In London, there is an opportunity to talk about how we might improve the scrutiny and accountability of the Mayor of London and of Mayors in general. For inspiration, my hon. Friend could look to the mayoral model put in place by our Government in Manchester, where rather than having an additional tier of GLA governance, it is a combined authority, with representatives—the leaders of those borough councils—working with the Mayor in a collaborative partnership, but with a strong voice for their borough in that relationship. London should look at new solutions like that, on the proviso that they are always ground-up and locally supported.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford

I am delighted by what the Minister has just said, because that is exactly what I said earlier: it would be far better to have an assembly or council of leaders from each borough who have a genuine understanding of what is needed in their local communities. I am afraid I do not think that the London Assembly fulfils that task in the way that is needed.

In the London Borough of Havering, the legitimacy of the Mayor and the GLA is hanging by a thread. If there were a referendum in my borough to opt out of the GLA and become a unitary authority, in my view there would be an overwhelming vote to exit—as it has been termed—the GLA. Most people would overwhelmingly want a separation and to restore control to our local communities. An area such as Havering feeds money into central London and pays far more for services from which we do not benefit; at the same time, the Mayor is able to interfere with our local area and override the council on planning. I hope that the Government will take this seriously and look at what reforms can be brought forward.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The Government take this issue absolutely seriously. My hon. Friend made a brilliant speech that has been widely supported, in which he made the argument very well. To be clear, it is not the Government’s position that the GLA should be abolished, replaced or reformed; the Government welcome the discussion that my hon. Friend has led. If there is a drumbeat or a clarion call from his borough to look at reform of the GLA, he is quite right that he and his council should lead that debate, and on a ground-up basis come to Government and have that discussion with other boroughs. Our door is open for those discussions, but they must come from the ground-up, be locally supported and have consensus because it is his long-term political ambition to seek reform.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford

I thank the Minister for that invitation. Is he therefore willing to meet the newly elected leader of Havering Council, Councillor Damian White, who is the youngest Conservative leader of any council in the country, and me, to talk about how a borough such as Havering can change in a way that benefits our local community, with the support of our Government?

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Yes, I am. I hope that is helpful, and I congratulate my hon. Friend’s new council leader on winning the election.

Another reason why it is appropriate for boroughs to lead the conversation about whether the existing GLA boundaries and structures are appropriate is simply that they have not changed since the 1960s. Our world has changed very much since the 1960s. A lot of the debate about English devolution is driven by a wider debate about the future of our country after Brexit. There is an ambition and desire out there for what I refer to as “double devolution”—taking a very European idea of subsidiarity and embedding that in the relationship between local government and national government.

The Government have committed to come forward with the devolution framework to try to stimulate the debate about what devolution should look like across England. As we start with year zero of creating a new, ambitious, globally competitive country, what part can the constituent local authorities—in some cases, parish councils and unitary authorities in our local government family—play in driving forward our nation’s ambition?

I will touch on some of the specific points made by my hon. Friend in his excellent speech. When he started speaking, I wrote at the top of my piece of paper that the people of Essex want to take back control, although he got round to saying that himself. That plays into a much wider debate we should be having about people’s identity. As a proud Member of Parliament representing Lancashire, I am aware of the strength of the Lancashire identity, which in many ways was undermined in local government reform when we lost the city of Liverpool, the city of Manchester and large parts of Greater Manchester. There is a real role for Members of Parliament and local councils in reinforcing those historic county boundaries.

My hon. Friend spoke passionately about his identity as someone born in Essex and representing Essex but having been sucked into the London agglomeration in some way. I feel similarly about Lancashire. Of course, Lancashire is one of the few county palatine boroughs in our United Kingdom, having been awarded the status by the King for protecting England from marauding Scots—something we occasionally see today. We in Lancashire are deeply proud of that county palatine status. We love our friends north of the border, with whom we have a great relationship, but we also like to be cognisant of our history.

My hon. Friend was edging towards saying, without realising it, that the GLA may be better represented or reformed with a Manchester model: a combined authority with a strong voice for the boroughs. The late, great Tony Wilson, of Manchester music industry fame, said:

“This is Manchester—we do things differently here.”

Where Manchester leads, many parts of the country can follow. The GLA was set up in 2000, and the debate has simply moved on. That is why the Government, and I as a constituency Member of Parliament, see this as a welcome time to debate the future of the GLA.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

The nearest equivalent organisation is London Councils, where council leaders across the Greater London area come together. Could that organisation be given combined authority status, with powers similar to Greater Manchester’s and the Mayor possibly taking the chair? Is that where Government thinking is leading?

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my earlier remarks, he would have heard me say that the Government are not suggesting that the GLA should be abolished, and we are not suggesting the creation of a combined authority. That is because the Conservatives, the party of English devolution, believe that devolution works best in England when it is ground-up and locally led. It is not for Whitehall to dictate what devolution should look like in Manchester, as he will appreciate, or to dictate what the changes—if any—that come forward for the GLA should be. It is for local politicians, led by Members of Parliament having this debate, to come forward to Government with ground-up proposals that the Government will look at, as we do with all such proposals.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

I am sure the leaders of Yorkshire will be delighted with the spirit of that. Does that mean that we are heading towards a one Yorkshire devolution deal?

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I think the leaders of Yorkshire are always delighted when they hear me talk about devolution. As the hon. Gentleman knows—I do not want to be drawn too far from the subject of the debate—the Government have been clear: we remain committed to the implementation of the south Yorkshire city region deal, known as the Sheffield city region deal.

As someone who has lived in Sheffield, I am keen to see the near-£1 billion of Government money go into that economy. In that city there is the bizarre situation where four Labour authority leaders cannot agree collectively about what power they should have to release that money. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the challenges faced by boroughs across England in local government spending, and it strikes me as a little bit odd that when the Government are saying to four Labour boroughs, “Here is £30 million a year that we would like to give you to invest in growing your economy,” those Labour boroughs are more interested in fighting each other than in drawing that money down. However, we are straying.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I will not, because we are straying a long way from the subject of the debate and I want to conclude my remarks.

This has been an interesting debate. I welcome the lead role that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford is taking in driving the debate on the future of the GLA and the mayoralty, and the relationship between the two. There has been no change since the 1960s. Although we cannot guarantee that any change will come, if he can command a broad coalition of boroughs across London who would like to talk to the Government about what change could look like, we will welcome those discussions.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford 10:34 am, 17th October 2018

This has been a worthwhile debate. I hope that colleagues who represent London constituencies will take the time to read some of the interesting, useful arguments put forward on a range of topics and that they, too, will think about how London should develop.

I have thought deeply about this. I have lived in London/Essex my entire life and I care about our great UK capital city, which I want to be a success as a global city that attracts investment, trade and tourism. However, I also want this region of the UK to be seen as a place where people live, based on communities in towns and villages. The identities of those areas are really important to local people. I welcome the Minister’s offer to have a meeting to talk about how we can take this agenda forward. I hope we can organise that soon.

I urge the Government to take this issue seriously. My fear is that if we do not push for change, sit together and work out a new model for how London can be governed, nothing will change, and in years’ time this will be seen as another debate where nothing really changed. I hope this is the start of that debate where we can come together and find solutions, recognising—this is the crux of my argument—that London is not just the central part. What the capital is should be defined, but there is London way beyond Greater London and the existing boundaries. That is what we must focus on. It has all changed since the ’60s, and we cannot carry on any longer with the existing structure.

Let us be radical but also consistent with what local people truly desire for their local towns, local communities and local boroughs in our great capital.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered local government reform in Greater London.

Sitting suspended.