Friday, 20 November 2015


Devolution will happen; it’s on the agenda, and there is a good deal of cross-party support for it. Although I have reservations about some aspects and details of the government’s proposals, the direction of travel is essentially right.

But we need a dialogue and debate about two important issues.

The first is the importance of codifying the powers of local government and its relationship with the centre. Currently, there is a real danger that some powers and aspects of policy will be devolved to local councils, but that other powers will be removed from local councils, and more controls introduced in their place.

For instance, at the same time that parliament is considering The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, it is also considering a Housing and Planning Bill which expropriates a large number of planning issues from local decision-making and gives them to Whitehall.

In the last parliament, the government portrayed the stand-alone housing revenue accounts as a major mechanism of decentralisation—a means of devolving power to local councils—but has now announced measures about rent-setting and determination which reverse devolution and move back to a centrist approach.

My point is that we need a time of reflection, with a discussion between Government, local government and this House about the framework for the constitutional relationships between the centre and local authorities of whatever kind, including combined authorities, so that we can look at the balance of powers and perhaps put down some markers or mechanisms for ensuring that the devolution we all support today is not taken back tomorrow. We need something of that kind. A constitutional convention has been mentioned—the Government may not like those words, but we need some mechanism to enable that to happen.

My second concern is about fiscal devolution. Last year, the Select Committee I chair produced a report on an all-party basis. It was overwhelmingly supported by the London Finance Commission, the Mayor of London and London boroughs, and the core cities. But it was dismissed by the government as something that it didn’t want to pursue.

However, the government is now pursuing the total localisation of business rates, but proposes to retain council tax capping and control by referendum. No other tax requires a referendum on any increase. I no more agree with this policy now than previously. Further, it is ludicrous that there has been no revaluation for council tax purposes for 25 years. And the government is simply refusing to consider any localisation of stamp duty or other property taxes or of income tax.

We need a serious look at wider fiscal devolution. Ultimately, simply giving to local councils the power to spend money that has been handed out from the centre is not real devolution at all.

Note: This is a summary of some contributions I made to the debate on the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. You can read more at: