A cross-party committee of MPs is calling for more devolution in England, covering a wider geography and more policy areas and with greater fund-raising powers, perhaps including local income tax.
‘Devolution must extend not only to combined authorities but to local government as a whole, and to rural as well as urban areas’, says the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee in a report published today.
Devolution should be the default option unless there is a good and compelling reason why a policy area should not be devolved, says the committee, and the government should consider following the model for the devolved nations, where there is a list of reserved powers and all other powers are available for devolution.
Policy areas that could be devolved include health, housing and planning, education, energy efficiency and the environment. The government should also consider extending powers for Transport for London-style oversight of local buses to all transport authorities – a subject discussed on this website on June 19.
Councils in turn should devolve further to their local communities, says the committee, chaired by Labour MP Clive Betts: ‘Devolution does not stop at the town hall door. Devolution must be undertaken with the involvement of the people in the area where devolution is taking place.
‘A weakness of past devolution in England has been the limited consultation with the public, especially prior to negotiations taking place. That needs to be put right. The local public should also be consulted on whether devolution should include having a directly elected mayor’.
Financial devolution, say the MPs, is necessary to ensure success: ‘The government should explore alternative ways in which revenue can be raised by local councils, to reduce reliance on council tax and business rates.
‘The government should also commission research into how income tax or other national tax revenue could be allocated to local and combined authorities, or how a local income tax across a combined authority area could work.
‘The principle of devolution funding should be that grants are given on a block basis to cover all services for which local and combined authorities have oversight, without ringfencing or competitive bidding. The government should also bring forward as soon as possible its proposals for how the UK Shared Prosperity Fund [the replacement for EU regional funds] will work’.
If there is one thing the MPs are right about it is that a weakness of past devolution in England has been the limited consultation with the public. Flaws in the consultation process when the North East Combined Authority (NECA) rejected a devolution offer in 2016 and split in two along the line of the Tyne are dealt with extensively in my thesis, particularly but not only in Chapter 7.2.
History appears to be repeating itself in this respect. The leaders of the seven North East councils (LA7) are discussing a new devolution deal, but in informal private meetings which publish no agendas, reports or minutes. Any news that emerges comes in dribs and drabs.