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30 September 2014

Devolution: we must go beyond an English Parliament to the cities, towns and regions

Power must be devolved not just to the UK’s nations but to its cities, towns and regions.

By David Lammy

If last week’s Labour party conference had a buzzword, it was devolution. As the issue of the moment following the Scottish referendum, MPs were quick to include it in speeches, many a fringe event mulled it over, and hotel bars were full of discussion on what it would mean in practice. Throughout conference, I couldn’t help wondering what Henry Fitz-Ailwyn would make of the devolution debate. Elected in 1189, Fitz-Ailwyn was the first ever Mayor of London. He was chosen to represent Londoners angry at the fact that their substantial taxes weren’t being invested in London but instead were being spent on national policies and foreign wars. Londoners might now look to their city’s history and see a familiar pattern emerging.

Much of the debate so far has focussed on the West Lothian Question of whether Scottish MPs should be able to vote on English issues. But it is a question that, while important, doesn’t fully address the core issue. Because if we are serious about devolving power to a truly local level, we wouldn’t stop at an English Parliament. England is as internally diverse a country as the UK as a whole, and proposals for a parliament that seeks to control all of its parts centrally are barely an improvement on the current situation. An English Parliament will not solve the problem of a lack of real power at local level.

Instead, power must be devolved not just to the UK’s nations but to its cities, towns and regions. At the same time, local authorities should be given more control over issues such as housing. And it must be done equally: devolution to some areas but not others is a recipe for trouble. Yet if the current debate is anything to do by, that is what we are looking at. Scotland will be given significant new powers as a result of the bones thrown to persuade it to stay in the union. It will have more independence than at any time since the Act of Union in 1707. And the government has already promised more devolution to the national assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland.

But also central to the devolution question is the UK’s other devolved assembly: London. The capital has a population equivalent to both Scotland and Wales combined, and an economy double the size of both of those countries put together. However, the government hasn’t made any commitment to give new powers to the Greater London Authority, despite repeated requests from London politicians of all parties.

I often wonder why we have a problem with Scottish MPs being able to dictate what happens in England, but not with, say, Yorkshire or Devon MPs being able to dictate what happens in London. Why, to take a specific example, is the Transport for London budget determined not by London’s directly elected Mayor but by George Osborne, a Cheshire MP, and Danny Alexander, a Scot?

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No one in London is asking for more money from government – just for the capital (and other cities) to be able to keep more of the money that it already makes. This would be matched by a reduction in the grant that London receives from central government, so the exchequer wouldn’t lose out but London’s leaders would still be granted more power to run the according to its needs. It’s not as if the need for these powers isn’t clear. London’s housing situation is getting desperate, while our transport system is at breaking point and needs urgent investment in infrastructure like Crossrail 2.

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In fact, the capital and other UK cities are already lagging well behind their international competitors in this area. Just 7 per cent of London’s taxes are retained by the Mayor of London and the London boroughs, compared to 50 percent in New York and 70 per cent in Tokyo. When it comes to the power of elected officials to govern their city, London is one of the most undemocratic in the developed world. The inability of its elected leaders to invest it its future is becoming a serious barrier to the capital’s continued success.

Some say that London already has enough – that it is already a successful city and doesn’t any more investment. But try telling that to the one in four Londoners living in poverty, the 255,000 London households stuck in overcrowded homes, the many thousands on decade-long council house waiting lists, or the commuters rammed on to over-capacity trains. It may be true that London’s economy is booming and creating great wealth, but the issue is where that wealth is going – and too often it is not into services that benefit ordinary Londoners. Giving London’s leaders more fiscal control would begin the process of fixing that.

We should also address head on the argument that London is a concrete black hole guzzling up the country’s resources. Actually, spending per head in London remains lower than in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And while the capital produces nearly a quarter of the UK’s wealth, it receives just one seventh of national funds.

Every week I meet constituents who are working long, tough hours doing two or three jobs at once just to pay the rent and feed the kids. It is cannot be right that their hard-earned taxes aren’t being used to keep fares down on their bus to work, or build homes for their children, but instead are being used to fund free university degrees for Scottish students.

Calls for new economic powers to be devolved to London are growing louder. But why should we stop there? The Mayor of New York has responsibility for that city’s education system, meaning a shared vision can be implemented across the city. The Mayor of London should be given more control of skills and training in London in order to create jobs for Londoners and plug the skills gaps in our city. And at a time when the London Ambulance Service is in crisis, struggling to cope with the demands placed on it, why not give the GLA the power to bolster that service?

The Scottish referendum has fundamentally changed how Britain is governed. Amongst all the shouting and bargaining that will follow, and the eventual transfer of powers, we must make sure that London and the UK’s other cities are not left behind, stuck with the same problems that faced Mayor Fitz-Ailwyn all those centuries ago.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham and hopes to stand for the London Mayoralty