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.