North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Act Fast On Devolution, MPs Told

A committee of MPs investigating English devolution has been urged to act quickly and not spend more time discussing what needs to be done.

 Lord Heseltine, former deputy prime minister, and some local government leaders believe that after more than 50 years of discussing how England is governed there is no need for more delay. 

It also became clear at the meeting of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee that devolution could involve a significant reduction in the number of councils in England. 

Some witnesses, including Julian German, leader of Cornwall County Council, and Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council and chair of the Local Government Association’s City Regions Board, were impatient for action. Councillor German said: ‘Post-Brexit and post-Covid, we need to take back control, we need to get on and deliver, and we need recovery and renewal. 

‘Five years ago, Sir Richard and I gave evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee on the Union and devolution, and there was the Kilbrandon Commission [Royal Commission on the Constitution 1969-73] – all this wealth of discussion on devolution. 

‘We now need to get on and deliver it. I do not want to be in front of a Select Committee in five years’ time talking about local government reorganisation’. 

David Williams, chair of the County Councils Network, said: ‘You can look back to the late ‘60s and early ’70s and Redcliffe-Maud [Royal Commission on Local Government in England 1966-69]…and its conclusion was that there should be 58 unitary authorities in England plus three metropolitan ones—Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands—and London. 

‘In all the time since then, we are now in a position where we still have 339 local authorities, many subscale, without the leadership, capacity and capabilities. I think we understand the issue very clearly, and we need to get on and deliver this, not least because it is so important now towards the economic recovery’. 

David Mundell, a Conservative MP, suggested a commission to look at governance arrangements in the four nations of the UK. But Sir Richard replied: ‘If we were to have a royal commission we would be back here in five years having the same conversation. We know enough—you know enough. Your reports and those of other committees say enough, certainly in England, to be able to make progress with devolution rather than spend a lot more time thinking about it. That is a priority for me’. 

Professor John Denham, who was a minister in the last Labour government, said: ‘There is a failure to involve the public. England is the only part of the Union not to have had a debate on how it is governed at local or national level or had a referendum in the past 20 years. There is very little public debate; these are all quite elite debates’. 

Referring to a proposed regional assembly for the North East, which was rejected in a referendum in 2004, he added: ‘It might have been designed by some north-east politicians, but it certainly wasn’t designed by the people of the north-east in order to ask them how they wished to be governed. Very often, we try to set up things that are not rooted in local communities’. 

He added: ‘Asking people how they wish to be governed has to be a key part of this process… Let’s have a principle of people being democratically governed in the way they want to be governed. I am actually confident that people will come up with sensible responses to that question. I think that if people are empowered, they will be less resistant to change in the structure of their local councils or whatever, which we sometimes assume. If it is imposed on them, they will hate it’. 

Professor Denham also said: ‘I don’t think we need to delay things while we make changes that are needed or while powers are devolved, but if powers are going to be ceded from central government to local government, asking people at local level—not just once, but over time—how those should be best exercised will make the outcomes better and more likely to work, because people will believe in them’. 

Lord Heseltine however responded: ‘What are we going to learn? We are going to have an endless consultation and a million different views, and nothing happens. The scale of the challenge facing this country, and the urgency of it, just does not permit yet another five years, a general election and perhaps a change of Government. Then we have to do it all over again. We have been through this for 50 years’. 

Lord Heseltine also referred to the current devolved arrangements in the North East: ‘You have areas —Newcastle—which are a joke, with the north of the Tyne now excluded from the south of the Tyne. How can you live with that?’