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20 April 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 6:06am

The government is shying away from real devolution

The Labour Party has always pushed for further decentralisation and devolution - we want to empower communities. 

By Jon Trickett

Politics in our country needs to be reshaped. Labour stands up for major devolution of power. The National Audit Office’s report on English devolution deals released today shows the many ways in which the Tory government is failing in its approach to devolution. The Tories aren’t going far enough, as criticisms from local authorities demonstrate.

The report confirms that when further devolution has been requested at a local level, either fiscally or in education, welfare and housing, central government has refused. The Tories like to talk about the merits of devolution but when actually given the opportunity to reshape governance in England, are shying away from real change.

The Labour Party has always pushed for further decentralisation and devolution. Being the party which transferred power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, our track record shows we want to empower communities and put decision-making back in the hands of those most affected by them.

The Tories’ top-down approach is weak and doesn’t go far enough in the handing over of power. Even if it had been scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet, it would probably be more comprehensive then what we’ve currently got. The NAO comes close to suggesting that the government’s lack of coherent plan and untested assumptions are making it more likely its attempt at devolution will fail.  

Far from bringing politics closer to voters, the unnecessary complexity of the English devolution deals now in place are more likely to put people off politics even more. And the government’s obvious dodging of making a clear statement of what it wants to achieve through devolution is at best odd and at worst worrying. How they have started on this road without knowing where they actually want to get to is disturbing for those of us who can see what a missed opportunity this is.

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As the NAO report points out, there is no measurement in place for the impact of these devolution deals or a test of value for money. In other words, we’ve no idea what’s working and what’s not. With this Tory government’s fixation on cutting public spending, you’d think they might want to check that this process will ensure value for money.

There has been no clear direction or objectives on devolution from central Government. They argue that this is because devolution should be lead locally, which it definitely should but without any kind of framework or support where do these local authorities start?

It’s no surprise that some areas have not warmed to the Tory idea of devolution. With no public commitment on spending from central government to help local areas implement devolution, no prediction of financial implications and no defined timetable, it’s easy to guess who will lose out.

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Using the Greater Manchester Combined Authority as an example, the government has committed to £30million additional funding for the devolution deal – £3million per council. This is welcome but inadequate. It is nearly a third less than the capital funding the same authority receives annually from the Local Growth Fund for the Local Enterprise Partnership. In total, LEPs received £461.5million annually and investment in devolution deals will amount to £246.5million.

As the NAO identifies, there are plans to combine funding streams covering investment funding, transport and Local Growth Fund into a ‘single pot’. We agree that local areas should have financial autonomy but the funding needs to be sufficient. By not ring-fencing funding the Tory government is divesting itself of the responsibility for where cuts will fall, which will be left to local authorities to decide. The Tories hope to continue underfunding local authorities with impunity and this way, they believe that they will be able to escape from blame as to why the local library has to close as they can say it’s all down to the local authority.

It is extremely difficult to believe in the Government’s commitment to devolution when the departments overseeing it are facing the biggest spending reductions over the next five years.

In the coming months, Labour will show how we will construct a pathway to a much more comprehensive model of devolution because if we’re truly reshaping politics we’ve got to do better than this.

jon Trickett is Labour MP for Hemsworth and Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government