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:

Monday, 16 November 2015

Last chance!

It’s countdown time. On the 21st November it will be too late.

If you are not on the electoral register before then, you won’t count when changes are made to election boundaries in 2016. If you, or your family or friends aren’t on the register by then, when you do get organised to get on the register to vote, your vote will have less value than it should.

So, what’s going on? And why do you need to act this week?

The new system of Individual Electoral Registration (IER) changes how you register to vote. In the past, electoral registration was the responsibility of ‘the householder.’

But, things have changed. Now, you need to register yourself. The problem is that the Conservative government have rushed these changes through and have not properly informed voters.  They think it is in their interests not to have a comprehensive electoral register. As a result, up to a million people may not have even realised what they have to do.

Young people and students are amongst the groups worst affected, alongside people who live in private rented accommodation, those who move frequently.

We can’t sit by and watch this many people lose the right to vote. That’s why this week is crucial. We must do everything we can before the deadline to make sure that everyone who wants to vote in future elections can.
If you are not on the register, you not only lose the right to vote. You may also find that you are denied access to a range of services or products that most people take for granted. Not being on the register will almost certainly stop you opening a bank account or getting a mortgage, credit or a loan, except at an extortionate rate.
So, you have to act this week to ensure you get counted on the 1st December electoral register.

And, it’s not just you. Please spread the word. Ensure your family and friends know just how important this is.

It's actually really easy to register, just visit and in three minutes it will all be done.

Crunch time for housing

We have a rapidly growing housing crisis. 

I had to remind the Conservative Secretary of State this week that I had been previously been critical of the former Labour government for not building enough homes, but that the biggest problem was that this last Conservative-led coalition government had built even fewer. 

David Cameron has promised that 1 million new homes will be built in this parliament. Let me tell you that there is not a cat-in-hell’s chance of that happening unless the government does a complete u-turn and invests in new social housing for rent, by councils or housing associations. There is no sign of that happening.

Owner-occupation is falling rapidly. The proportion of households who can actually afford to buy is falling rapidly. The number of people in their 20s and 30s who are staying home with their parents is rising day-by-day. Homelessness is on the increase. Low income families are being forcibly re-housed from higher rent areas, away from their jobs, their children’s schools and their families. On nearly every indicator, the problem is getting worse each and every day.
So, what is David Cameron’s response?

First, he has stopped councils from requiring developers to include affordable homes in new build schemes. He has replaced this policy with his Starter Homes’ initiative. And, do you know the price of these Starter Homes – up to £450,000 in London and £250,000 in the rest of England. Anyone who thinks most young families can afford £250,000 let alone £450,000 has simply lost touch with reality.
Second, he has taken decision-making, about where these homes should be, away from local communities and councils and moved to Whitehall. So much for localism!

Third, he’s introduced right-to-buy for social housing tenants, but it is absolutely clear that there will not be one-for-one replacement, and the discounts are to be funded by forcing councils to sell more homes. Even Conservative MPs are lining up in droves to object, asking for exemptions for their communities; those in rural areas say this policy will lead to the end of any affordable homes for rent in vast areas of the country.

Fourth, Cameron is imposing new rent control arrangements on both councils and housing associations – tearing up existing arrangements without notice – which will cut the number of new homes they can build by thousands. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) now says that most social housing tenants would not benefit from any rent reduction, but the policy will benefit the exchequer. 

The consequence on new house-building is also dramatic. The government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicts that 14,000 fewer social sector properties will be built between now and 2020–21 as a consequence. Locally, Sheffield Housing will lose £27m over 5 years and South Yorkshire Housing Association will lose £7m.

And, just to rub salt into the wounds, Cameron and Osborne have now confirmed that they believe that two hard-working adults each earning the Living Wage is to be defined as having a High Income for which it should be rewarded with a significant increase in rent.

From April 2017, social housing tenants with household incomes above £40,000 in London, and above £30,000 elsewhere in England, will have to pay more rent. IFS estimates that more than 250,000 households will be hit. The details are yet to be revealed, but we could see some households getting a £1 annual increase in income being forced to pay a £1000 or more in additional rent.
It’s crunch time for housing. Far from addressing the challenge, Cameron just keeps adding to the crisis.