Nothing says more about where power in our country is held than the glittering ceremony of the Queen’s Speech. A list of legislation is announced in Westminster, Government ministers work with Whitehall civil servants to draft bills, and the rest of the country feels like it’s on the outside looking in. Power shouldn’t feel so remote.
We need to bring power closer to the people. That’s the only way to make decisions more relevant to people’s lives. Next week’s Queen’s Speech should include legislation for a new deal for England’s towns and cities that goes far beyond the limited devolution we’ve seen so far. As last month’s National Audit Office report made clear, the Government has forced councils to do devolution deals behind closed doors, locking out local communities and businesses. There’s no clarity about what powers are available or how they will be paid for. In some cases, such as schools and housing, communities are actually losing powers to the centre.
We need a new deal for England that loosens Whitehall’s deadening grip. Two immediate benefits would be better public services freed up to respond to their own users’ needs; and more power for local authorities to boost their local economy and attract new jobs and investment.
Like Plymouth’s fantastic cluster of solar energy co-operatives, or Oldham’s ground-breaking ethical care company, the best new thinking in politics is coming out of local councils working hand in hand with their own local community. Yet although there are so many examples of how people power works so well, the Government refuses to remove the barriers and allow it to spread more widely.
The Queen’s Speech should give communities a new right to request control over their services. Why shouldn’t tenants have a bigger say over the homes they live in? Or parents have a bigger say over the schools their children attend? Instead of pulling power up to Whitehall, the Government should make services more directly accountable to the people they serve. Devolution is a missed opportunity if it’s just about transferring a limited set of powers from one set of politicians to another – what’s needed is a people-power revolution that really sets people free to innovate.
One of the biggest threats to devolution is starving areas of funding. The Government has announced plans to devolve business rates but they won’t say how this will happen. If it’s done unfairly – not unusual with this Government – we could see poorer areas suffer at the expense of those that are better off. Resources should be devolved alongside powers, and funding should follow need so poorer communities aren’t left in a spiral of decline. Many councils have called for the power to vary business rates to attract investment, and the power to add higher and lower council tax bands to help poorer households and make this tax more progressive.
John McDonnell argued recently that communities are being prevented from boosting economic growth. The Tory record on productivity is dismal and England now has the biggest gap between rich and poor areas in Western Europe. Our local economies are suffering with a rate of shop closures still too high and too many young people unable to find well-paid local jobs. Local councils have the best understanding of how to boost local economies, yet the Tories insist on retaining Whitehall control over two-thirds of the £17bn fund for local growth.
Communities need more power over their own services and councils need more control over local economies. We know this improves value for money and boosts economic growth. A radical Queen’s Speech would break Whitehall’s stranglehold on power and share it out with communities across England.
Steve Reed MP is shadow minister for local government