“You can’t devolve powers to local people if they don’t know anything about it. The Tories need to come clean on what powers are on offer and how they will pay for them”
“Is the government’s “devolution revolution” stalling? The National Audit Office’s new report on English cities’ devolution deals, published last week, suggests it could be. The report makes clear what council leaders have been telling the government for months: many councils don’t know what powers are on offer to them, when they may get them, or how they will pay for them.
All these concerns should have been addressed much earlier in the process. Last year, the Tories blocked Labour amendments to the cities and local government devolution bill that would have made devolution work much better.
We called on the government to let areas choose whether they wanted a mayor or not, to publish a full list of services available for devolution, and to devolve resources alongside powers, so local areas aren’t just left to take the blame for government-imposed cuts. We also called for more devolution, beyond town halls to communities, giving people more control over the services they use.
Despite demands for more transparency, government ministers have become ever more secretive. In the past month alone, the communities secretary Greg Clark has refused two parliamentary questions and a Freedom of Information request to publish a list of which councils he’s talking to about devolution.
Transparency matters because you can’t devolve powers to communities if they don’t know anything about it. Involving communities will lead to better devolution deals because local people understand their own communities better than Whitehall does.
Polling by Ipsos Mori demonstrates a close link between awareness of devolution and positive attitudes towards it. Being open about devolution builds support, while doing deals in secret breeds opposition. That’s why the most successful transformations in public services are coming from local, not central, government. Plymouth council, for example, has set up more than 30 energy co-ops working with their community; Rochdale has recently mutualised its housing stock to give tenants a real stake in ownership, and Oldham council has improved care for older people and better conditions for care staff in its ethical care company.
Rochdale joins staff and tenants together as biggest mutual in housing
As leader of Lambeth council until 2012 I learned that giving communities a bigger voice leads to better public services. A tenant management board gave residents the power to lead the transformation of Blenheim Gardens housing estate in Brixton, improving repairs and rent collection, and cutting crime. A community-led youth trust is creating new opportunities for young people and tackling gang crime in some of the south London borough’s most disadvantaged communities.
This is real devolution – people getting the chance to influence decisions that affect them, and making the professionals who run those services listen more carefully to the people they serve.
The NAO raises concerns that devolution has been so tightly controlled by the chancellor, George Osborne, excluding even other government ministers, that it could go into reverse if there is a change of chancellor. How ironic that an agenda based on letting go is being so tightly gripped by a single over-controlling individual. And there is no consistency to the government’s approach. At the same time as the devolution bill was going through parliament last year, the government was pushing through a housing bill that centralised more than 30 powers in Whitehall.
Labour has argued for more ambitious devolution that shapes a new relationship between citizens and the state and redefines the relationship between local and national government.
We believe in devolution by default. That means a new approach that assumes powers will be devolved unless there is a compelling reason not to. We want to see resources devolved alongside powers, with fiscal devolution that ensures funding follows need. And we want devolution to mean something more than a transfer of power from one set of politicians to another – communities need a new right to request control.
Last week’s NAO report backs Labour’s charge that the government’s approach is too limited, too centralised and too controlling. This is a moment to be bold, to let go and let communities shape the devolved future they want for themselves.