Plants are displayed in front of the Manchester Town Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband's New Deal for England will unleash local energy and vision

We cannot rely on so much of our prosperity coming from London - and it is centralisation that is holding places back.

Ed Miliband’s announcement today represents nothing less than a New Deal for England. It is the biggest devolution to cities, and county regions, in a hundred years; a radical decentralisation of control with decisions to be taken not by Whitehall but through strong local leadership.

A Labour government will pass down new powers to invest in infrastructure, such as transport and housing and more control over skills funding, with businesses having a direct say in the funding of apprenticeships. We will give city and county authorities new powers to lead on delivering the Work Programme, so that they can use their local knowledge to decide which providers will do best in getting people into a job. And we will ensure that local communities benefit directly from the proceeds of growth in their area.

In return, councils will have to work together in a local economic area, through a Combined Authority or an Economic Prosperity Board, to receive these powers. Coterminous Local Enterprise Partnerships will need to be integrated into this new governance structure to provide independent strategic advice. By bringing them together, strong political and business leadership will be able to draw up an agreed plan for the economic development of their area.

What is the significance of this?

First, it shows that Labour is serious about devolution. We will trust councils and businesses to do what they think best for their future.

Secondly, it recognises that we need a better balance of economic development across the country, and that the best way to do this is to unleash local energy and vision. As a nation we cannot rely on so much of our prosperity coming from London. Of course we need the capital to prosper, but we also need all our towns and cities to do the same to generate growth in every region.

And thirdly, it draws on the lessons of the past.

After all, it was strong local leadership that brought prosperity to so many of our great towns, cities and communities. Look back at how those communities grew and succeeded, how local industries thrived and created jobs, how disease was tackled and poverty fought, and how the slums that scarred our land were cleared. It was civic pride, collective endeavour, economic vision and social conscience that brought gas, electricity and clean water to people’s homes and built the houses, schools, hospitals, libraries, and the parks that changed people’s lives. Our forebears did not wait for a missive from Mr Gladstone or Mr Disraeli telling them what they should be doing. They looked around them, saw what was required and then got on with it.

And that’s why we should take inspiration from this history and push power down because it is centralisation that is holding places back. Devolving power and decision-making will allow local economic vision to emerge, helping businesses to become more productive, profitable and competitive. Ultimately, we cannot hope to tackle the root causes of the cost of living crisis unless we earn our way out of it.

David Cameron simply doesn’t get this. The Heseltine Review proposed a major devolution of power, but the government ignored it. It falls to Labour to show that we have listened and heard what local councils and businesses have said to us: "Give us the tools, and we will do the job". And that is exactly what we will do.

Hilary Benn is shadow foreign secretary, and Labour MP for Leeds Central.

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.