THE BLOG

Devolution Is a Chance to Open Up Politics and Renew Our Democracy

15/11/2015 19:38 GMT | Updated 15/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Britain is the most over-centralised country in the developed world. Regions are unable to promote economic growth and jobs, communities are unable to tackle challenges like crime or anti-social behaviour, and individuals have little control over the local public services they rely on such as health, street cleaning or libraries. It's time to untie the straightjacket of Whitehall control and set our people free.

The last Labour government devolved powers to Scotland and Wales and set up London's mayor and assembly, all opposed at the time by the Conservatives. The government's Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill builds on these achievements and is a welcome step forward. But it doesn't go far enough, it includes unnecessary hurdles to devolution, and while the Bill goes through Parliament much of the rest of government is busily strengthening its deadening grip with yet more centralising powers. Labour wants devolution to go further and faster - real thoroughgoing devolution, not the very modest proposals on offer from the Tories.

While the Chancellor claims he has finally understood the need for devolution, he is supporting plans to give Whitehall the power to sell off social housing in areas with a housing crisis; he has denied local communities any role in the oversight or planning of free schools; and he allowed the Work Programme to be set up without any local involvement, which explains why it's floundering.

Labour councils have been at the forefront in calling for real devolution of powers. It's important we listen carefully to what our councillors have to say, and they have a duty to negotiate the best deals they can with the government of the day. It is Labour councils in Greater Manchester, for example, who should be praised for winning a welcome shift in decision-making and responsibility.

As a party though, Labour must be far more ambitious and look to a settlement that goes further than George Osborne's Northern Powerhouse. We need to develop a plan that shifts both decision-making and resources to promote economic growth and rebalance Britain's economy. It's a shame the Tories have chosen to do devolution deals behind closed doors, excluding local communities and businesses from having a voice. We believe a more open and transparent approach would have made them even better.

The Chancellor's Autumn Statement will show, yet again, that the Tories are forcing the biggest cuts on areas with the greatest needs. With those same areas often in the lead on devolution, there are real concerns that the government sees this as an opportunity to devolve the blame for cuts made in Whitehall. It's far better for decisions to be taken locally, but we need to be clear from the start that it's not local decision-makers who are choosing to under-resource local services.

The government is making devolution to city-regions dependent on having an elected mayor. That's fine if it's what local people want. But what if local people want something else? The government arrogantly refuses to devolve decisions over the appropriate model of governance to the areas that will be affected. And many shires and towns feel excluded from devolution - they need to know there's an opportunity for them too.

Labour wants to see devolution on offer to the whole country. A real move towards a new, federal settlement for the whole of the United Kingdom. It offers a way of dealing with England's democratic deficit by devolving many more powers from Whitehall. We want to see proposals for a smaller central government that fits a new devolved settlement; fiscal devolution that gives local government and communities more control over funding while protecting poorer areas; and a clearer vision for how every town, country and region can benefit.

We know that devolution can't just be a shift from Whitehall to the town hall. We want to see powers available to local communities and public service users so they can control the things that matter most to them. This is a chance to open up politics and renew our democracy. It requires a real commitment to letting go across every part of Government - a commitment that, sadly, is still sorely lacking from the Tories.

Jon Trickett is Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and Shadow Minister for the Constitutional Convention

Steve Reed is Shadow Minister for Local Government