On Monday, Milton Keynes welcomed Labour Leader, Ed Miliband and Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls to Milton Keynes, along with the 10 Labour leaders of the biggest urban areas in England, such as the Manchester City Region, the Liverpool City Region and the Newcastle City Region. The visit was to discuss my party’s plans for devolution to local areas in the run-up to the General Election.
Devolution is a very hot topic for all the major parties. Only two weeks ago we welcomed Greg Clark MP, Minister for Cities in the Coalition Government to MK to sign a Growth Deal with the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP), of which Milton Keynes Council is a part.
The question has been around for a very long time now. All governments in at least the last 40 years have tended towards centralisation and control of services from Westminster. I believe what is driving the current focus of devolution to local areas are two big issues.
The first is the result of the Scottish Independence Referendum. Now, whatever the final score was on the Yes/No question, the result was quite clear. Scotland wanted a greater say of its own affairs, partly driven, I think, by an understandable wish to have decisions made closer to home. But there was also a very large and clear reaction to Westminster politics.
You only have to knock on a few doors here in Milton Keynes to quickly learn that this sentiment is shared not just by Scottish voters but by people here in our city. People want to see more decisions taken at a local level and to have a greater say in things that happen at a local level. Westminster is seen as elite, out of touch and self-serving. Now this may or may not be true, but the very real view is that people would like to see more local control over local services in the face of greater devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and big Northern cities regions.
I have always been clear that what is good enough for Scotland and Manchester should be good enough for Milton Keynes.
The second issue driving the devolution agenda is public spending and the need to make cuts. Over the past four years, Local Government across the country has made a tremendous effort in public sector reform and savings. Local councils have taken on average around a 40% reduction in their funding, yet the majority still continue to deliver the services we all rely on day in, day out. If Central Government had been just a third as efficient in their savings, we would no longer have a budget deficit! A number of authorities are now, however, at breaking point and so the need for reform and more local power is needed.
The drive for greater local autonomy is therefore at a point where a number of factors have come together to make the need for Westminster to listen, very clear. We need to grab the opportunity while we can for a new way of doing things before the urgency blows over and the world moves on to other things.
I will start by saying what devolution is not. It is not a debate about Scotland and the so called “English votes for English MPs” question. I can kill two birds with one stone here; firstly, the answer to people rejecting Westminster is not even more power in the hands of fewer people in Westminster! Only Members of Parliament and those based in London could possibly come up with an answer on devolution that says “more centralisation in Westminster, please!” However it should also be quite clear that if you do devolve power and resources away from Westminster to cities, city regions or county regions, and give us more say on areas like infrastructure funding, skills, transport, social care, policing and the NHS, you are answering the question anyway by decentralising power to where people want it, locally.
What devolution should bring is greater accountability for decisions made at a local level. It is no surprise that only 30% of people choose to vote in local elections when you have has a succession of national politicians legislating on nearly every service local councils provide. When Central Government feels the need to threaten local authorities with laws over how often they should empty bins or say if we can and can’t put up Council Tax and by what amount, something has gone wrong. Constant meddling by Westminster in local government undermines local democracy and it is little wonder that some local elections then become more of a poll on the performance of central government. Ensuring local accountability for decisions and services provided at a local level would benefit everyone.
Devolution should also bring the power to invest and make decisions that reflect the need of the local population. For too long, local areas have been treated in a ‘one size fits all’ mentality by Central Government. The challenges and issues faced by Milton Keynes are radically different than those faced by Liverpool or Torbay. Devolution should be about every area being able to have the powers and resources to deliver for the needs to the local population. For instance, here in Milton Keynes we have a great record on growth; our priority is around ensuring we grow in the right way and are able to provide the infrastructure, facilities and services people need, yet we are treated no differently to other towns and cities with very different issues. Local areas need the ability to match local need and local priorities with the ability to deliver on these issues. What we don’t want is a whole load of powers with no means to deliver them either. Very small changes in places like Milton Keynes, such as the way our Business Rates could be retained locally, would enable this without the need for extra revenue sources.
Finally, devolution needs to be consensual. The terms and conditions cannot be laid down by Central Government. It should not just be about cost cutting, but about delivering services and value to local people. It shouldn’t be taken as an opportunity to force local areas to do things that are not in their best interests. It should not be about imposing elected Mayors where they are not wanted, but should be about a real attempt to bring out co-operation between existing local authorities to work together on issues they have common ground on for the benefit of local people.
I passionately believe that local democracy works and that the place the majority of people want to see decisions made about their lives is as close to their front door as possible. Devolution is about putting more power back into the hands of local people on a level they can, and do, influence. In the run up to the General Election I will be making the case to all party leaders and policy makers on the need for greater devolution to Milton Keynes and our local area in order to deliver better, more efficiently run services to the people that really matter; our citizens.