How much common ground do the political parties have on localism? As Isabel pointed out this morning, Labour and the Conservatives are engaged in an arms race to see who can out do the other on plans to devolve powers from central government. All politicians love to talk up localism — particularly in opposition, where there’s no Whitehall machine to deal with — but their dreams and slogans frequently change. This is what the three main parties have said, and currently believe, on empowering the regions:
In opposition, David Cameron put forward plans to devolve power in a more radical way than ever before. In the Conservatives' 2010 manifesto, a section entitled ‘Make politics more local’ outlined their plans for doing this through elected mayors:
‘We will put neighbourhoods in charge of planning the way their communities develop, with incentives in favour of sustainable development. We will make it easier for everyone to get onto the housing ladder. We will give individuals and local government much more power, allow communities to take control of vital services, and give people the chance to have a powerful, elected mayor in England’s largest cities.’
The implementation of elected mayors didn't go to plan in government. A referendum was held two years ago and only a handful of cities said yes. As I wrote in the Spectator earlier this year, it’s a shame England didn't vote for more elected mayors. It could have been a great opportunity to give mayors much needed control over their own areas.
George Osborne is still a fan of localism, as seen in his ‘Northern powerhouse’ speech last week. The Chancellor has advocated building a high speed railway between Manchester and Leeds; to help the Northern cities build better links and work together to further their interests. Through improved infrastructure, careful planning and united politicians, the Chancellor believes the north will be able to take on London.
It’s likely more devolution commitments (along these lines) will feature in the next Tory manifesto.
Andrew Adonis’ growth review released today argues for a ‘really big package’ of devolution to rebalance England’s economy. Under his proposals, £6 billion a year of transport, housing, welfare and infrastructure budgets would be devolved from central government to councils or combined authorities. Adonis has also proposed creating 100 ‘University Technical Colleges’ and giving more procurement contracts to SMEs.
Sound familiar? Labour’s proposals are along the same lines as the Tories, although arguably more radical. The cities minister Greg Clark suggested on the World at One that today's announcement is really just Labour backing the government’s devolution plans.
This isn’t Labour’s first attempt at giving more powers to the regions — remember John Prescott’s regional assemblies? The one and only vote lead to 78 per cent of the North East saying no to his idea of an extra layer of government.
At the party’s spring conference, a motion was carried on a policy paper which would allow cities to have ‘devolution on demand’. A council (or grouping of them) with at least one million inhabitants could apply to Whitehall for devolution. If successful, the council would be granted similar powers to Wales.
There’s one area that's very keen on this idea: Cornwall. The Lib Dem proposals would offer ‘immediate devolution to Cornwall’, according to the Local Government Chronicle. It isn’t clear if any other councils would be interested in begging for devolution.