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Council leaders urge next Government to ‘revive local democracy’ with sweeping devolution reforms

Council leaders urge next Government to ‘revive local democracy’ with sweeping devolution reforms

🕔28.Apr 2015

Councils in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have united to demand “urgent action” by whoever forms the next government to set out how powers will be devolved to local communities in its first Queen’s Speech.

In a joint statement issued ahead of the General Election, the UK’s four local government associations call on politicians to grasp “the opportunity to revive our local democratic systems” by pushing ahead rapidly with radical decentralisation of powers from Westminster.

The declaration is signed by Cllr David Sparks, chair of the Local Government Association, Cllr Aaron Shotton, deputy leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, Cllr David O’Neill, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and Cllr Dermot Curran, president of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association.

The leaders call on whoever forms the next government to ensure that:

  • Legislation in the first Queen Speech (including the Scotland Bill, the Wales Bill and an English Devolution Bill) is framed to empower local communities through councils, embeds the principle of subsidiarity and guarantees the devolution of powers beyond Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont
  • The European Charter of Local Self-Government, which sets out the principles of local democracy and was signed by the United Kingdom in 1997, forms part of our new constitutional settlement
  • Any future Constitutional Convention on the future of the governance of the United Kingdom should guarantee seats around the table for the leaders of the four associations to ensure that the voices of local communities are heard.

In their statement the four leaders said:

Strong local democracy and empowered communities will be a force for good.

As we approach the election of a new Parliament, the time for talking has ended. The new government will be given the responsibility of defining a new settlement for the communities of the United Kingdom. We have the opportunity to shape history and strengthen our nation.

We made representations to William Hague’s Cabinet Committee in London and the Smith Commission in Edinburgh. Both reports called for a major shift in power and a revival of local decision-making. National parties and local communities in every part of our nation have also signalled a desire for change.

We are very clear that it is time to move away from an expensive, centralised approach which means that governments in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh or London try to second guess what is best for localities. Any settlement which does not extend beyond Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont will not be sustainable.

The four associations set out the three guiding principles in the devolution debate which unite them and the communities they represent across the UK.

  • Establish a principle of subsidiarity by transferring power to the level of government closest to the people.
  • Secure and enhance the legal position of local government. Introduce a defined set of powers and responsibilities which sets out what local government can support at the local level so that public services which are most appropriate to local need can be delivered.
  • Greater fiscal autonomy for local to help generate economic growth, improve public services and ensure that local residents and business see how their money is used.

The statement coincides with a new report from Centre for Cities which gives a guarded welcome to commitments to devolution from the three main parties.

The study notes that Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would all transfer some policy functions and flexibilities down from Whitehall, but there are few commitments to improve the fiscal and financial tools that cities have at their disposal to support growth.

Centre for Cities say they are encouraged to see more of a focus on place-based investment and urban growth in some of the manifestos but concerned that this place-based approach does not extend to the other policy areas that could have the biggest impact on boosting economic growth in UK cities, such as housing, transport and skills. The think tank warns:

In general there remains a lack of emphasis on ensuring policies can be tailored to the specific challenges different places face.

What the parties are saying about devolution:

Conservatives

The Conservatives would continue with the City Deal based approach of the last Government, with promises made to devolve more powers to large cities, specifically to those who choose to introduce an elected metro mayor.

Their manifesto also re-states commitments made in the last Parliament including: legislating for the Manchester devolution deal, implementing local business rate retention pilots, devolving more skills and planning powers to London and delivering more bespoke Growth Deals with local councils.

Continued support for the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is promised, with £13 billion funding for transport in the North, including for an HS3 line between Manchester and Leeds, and road investments. The manifesto groups together certain policies to invest in the South West, Midlands and East of England through transport investment and support for specific local industries.

In addition to granting more powers to Scotland and Wales, the Conservatives would give English MPs a veto on England-only matters in Parliament, and require English consent over how spending is distributed and taxes set within England – an English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) approach.

Labour

The Labour manifesto takes a more universal approach to urban policy. The party has pledged to introduce an English Devolution Act and provide £30 billion of devolved funding to cities and county regions, as well as setting longer-term multi-year budgets for local authorities.

They would allow city and county regions to retain 100 per cent of additional business rates growth, create an English Regional Cabinet Committee and local Public Accounts Committees, and give Wales the same powers as Scotland under the Smith Commission Agreement.

The manifesto also contains promises to support high-tech knowledge clusters based around universities, especially outside of the South East.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats propose a system of Devolution on Demand, which would continue with the city deals and growth deals process of gradual devolution, but would shift the emphasis more towards a presumption in favour of transferring powers wherever cities can demonstrate a local appetite and capacity to deliver.

The party’s manifesto also talks about establishing a Government process to deliver greater devolution of financial responsibility to English local authorities, and any new devolved bodies in England. Place-specific proposals include a commitment to delivering Transport for the North to promote growth, innovation and prosperity across northern England.

Their manifesto also singles out the South West, London and East-West connections as areas for transport infrastructure investment. The Liberal Democrats would also give Wales more power over Network Rail funding, as well as additional powers for Scotland and Wales over the Crown Estate, borrowing for investment and benefits for older people, carers and disabled people.

Others

The SNP would like to see City Deals made available to more cities in Scotland and the creation of a £300 million Scottish Cities Fund, as well as similar funds for Northern and Welsh cities.

Above and beyond ensuring that the Smith Agreement is honoured in full in the next Government, the SNP will seek more financial powers for Scotland, as well as greater freedoms over employment policy and welfare.

The Greens call for a Constitutional Convention to set out devolution plans for counties or city-regions, as well as to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

UKIP would give seaside towns additional planning powers and reform the Barnett formula, resulting in lower levels of grant to Scotland.

Plaid Cymru support the full transfer of powers recommended by the Commission on Devolution in Wales, and want Wales to be given the same levels of funding (on a per capita basis) and taxation powers as Scotland.

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