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‘Put your money where your mouth is on devolution’, UK cities tell Government

‘Put your money where your mouth is on devolution’, UK cities tell Government

🕔26.Sep 2014

The leaders of Britain’s largest local authorities have warned the Government not to water down a pledge to devolve powers and budgets to the country’s largest cities, reports Paul Dale.

In a letter to First Secretary William Hague the Core Cities group say voters won’t accept delays or “half measures” and insist that devolution to cities across the UK must be enacted at the same speed as devolution to Scotland with a clear plan in place by the 2015 General Election.

The eight English Core Cities – Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield as well as Cardiff and Glasgow – welcomed the prime minister’s statement after Scotland voted against independence that Britain’s cities must be “empowered”.

They warned that “constitutional wrangles” over the issue of whether only English MPs should be able to vote on English issues, and the possibility of setting up an English parliament, could detract from the importance of devolving powers to cities.

In the letter to Mr Hague, the council leaders said: “Although our cities contribute a massive share of the nation’s wealth, they largely underperform by international standards.  Overwhelming evidence demonstrates this is because they have too long been subject to centralised control, and this is just as true for Glasgow and Cardiff as it is for cities in England.

“People clearly want more local freedom from central constraint, wherever they live.  Devolution cannot just be to national parliaments, replacing a centralised Government in Westminster with one in Scotland, Wales or indeed England.

“An English parliament alone is not the answer.  We therefore welcome the Prime Minister’s statement that Government must empower our great cities.

“There is now an unquestionable case that it is far more important to have devolution at a much more local level, starting with our great cities, where devolution will result in the greatest benefits in terms of jobs, growth and improved public services.

“It is cities that drive growth and jobs for their nations, not the other way around.  To do so cities need more freedom, for example to decide how more of the taxes raised locally are spent locally.”

The success of devolution, the council leaders argue, will be judged by “far more effective integration of services at the right geographic level, giving us for more bang for each pound of public sector investment, more jobs and growth, investment for housing and transport, improved public services, unlocking the massive unused potential of our cities.”

The Core Cities group says it has the support of the business community, with Local Enterprise Partnerships fully behind the push for devolution as well as the CBI.

But a cautionary note was sounded by former British Chambers of Commerce director general David Frost. Birmingham-based Frost wrote in his blog that it was far from clear what additional powers cities wanted and whether devolution would make any difference to the performance of councils.

Frost added: “To whom should any further powers of de-centralisation be handed to? We are surely not suggesting to those Local Authorities which have been party to major systemic failure in the provision of services. Should it be the LEPs? Well, not in their present guise. They would need to be far more democratically accountable to the communities they serve.

“The debate at this stage is too much of a knee jerk – if Scotland can be promised more then we should have them. Scotland has an identity has the West Midlands or the Midlands got one?

“Behind all of this is a suspicion that a key power is that is being sought is to raise additional income. Be careful. Look at the public finances. They are in a truly dreadful state. Tax receipts are not rising because wages are not rising. Large parts of the electorate have no spare money. They cannot afford any further charges or taxes.”

These issues will be debated at a fringe event on Monday evening, Empowering Cities: How Greater Financial Powers for Cities will Benefit the UK. 

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