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Whitby warns memories of ‘loony left’ councils may scupper devolution

Whitby warns memories of ‘loony left’ councils may scupper devolution

🕔29.Sep 2014

Paul Dale drops into the Lord Whitby Room at the Library of Birmingham to hear the eponymous Baron speak on the subject of urban conservatism. 

Whitehall may try to block devolution in England because memories of profligate spending by Labour councils remain vivid, a former Birmingham city council leader has warned.

Mike Whitby told a Conservative conference fringe meeting that many local authorities abused their position in the 1970s and 1980s by borrowing and spending too much and imposing soaring rates increases.

Lord Whitby, who led Birmingham council from 2004 to 2012, said he feared Treasury civil servants would seek to scupper the Government’s plan to roll out devolution to English cities and regions following the Scottish referendum result.

And while he supported moves to devolve limited borrowing and tax-raising powers from Westminster to cities like Birmingham, a way would have to be found to avoid a reawakening of the ‘loony left’ councils of 40 years ago.

He warned: “One of the dilemmas is the propensity for great cities to be run for years by the same party. In the 1980s that power was abused.”

Speaking in the Lord Whitby Room at the Library of Birmingham – the naming of the room is a tribute from the Broad Street Business Improvement District to the role he played in delivering the £187 million building – the former leader of the Conservative Birmingham group commented: “Local government had a propensity for over-taxing its citizens. That will underpin the debate going on today.”

However, the devolution issue had to be addressed to stop local government “withering on the vine” because its powers had been emasculated.

Speaking on the topic of urban Conservatism, he drew parallels with his own city council administration in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Birmingham had to be “proud enough and confident enough” to be the capital of the Greater Birmingham region.

The new library was a fine example of what could be achieved and, significantly, was built without a penny of Government funding. Almost all of the cost was met from borrowing.

The library represented a “sophisticated welcoming card saying this is a city proud of its past and confident of its future.”

Lord Whitby added: “Birmingham’s Big City Plan, which I launched in 2008, is a template for today’s redevelopment of our city centre which will expand by a factor of 10 generating 50,000 jobs and 5,000 new homes”.

On the opening day of the conference Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, warned against devolving tax-raising powers to city regions. He prefers a devolved approach to the “neighbourhood level”.

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