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MPs call for devolution to become default option in England

Devolution in England must extend not only to combined authorities but to local government as a whole, and to rural as well as urban areas, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee has said.

In a report, Progress on devolution in England, the committee said:

  • In the remainder of this Parliament there should be further progress on devolution.
  • The Government should work with local government and other stakeholders to produce a devolution framework. “The framework should include a set of principles committing the Government to devolution as an evolving process with a forward direction.”
  • Devolution should be the default option unless there is a good and compelling reason why a policy area should not be devolved, 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.
  • Councils should also devolve to their local communities—"devolution does not stop at the town hall door”.
  • A weakness of past devolution in England had 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.”
  • 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.
  • In respect of funding, 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 will work – there had been an “unacceptable delay”.
  • There should be further devolution to local government across a range of policy areas. The proposals of the cross-party Health Devolution Commission should be the basis for health devolution. Greater powers in respect of housing and planning and education should also be available for devolution. The Government should examine the case for further devolution in respect of other policy areas, such as energy efficiency and the environment. It should also consider extending powers for Transport for London-style oversight of local buses to all transport authorities.

Clive Betts, Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, said: “Michael Gove, as the new Secretary of State, should the seize the opportunity to vigorously drive forward devolution across England and help boost the provision of public services in cities and regions.

“Across Whitehall, Government needs to be more positive and proactive in delivering devolution. On this path, the Government should work with local government to produce a devolution framework in which devolution is the default option. Devolution also needs to involve local people. The local public should be consulted on whether devolution should include having a directly elected mayor.

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“Financial devolution is crucial to the future success of devolution. The Government should examine the options for fiscal devolution, giving local authorities greater freedom and enabling them to be take longer-term decisions for their communities and be more accountable to their electorates.”

Responding to the committee’s report, Cllr James Jamieson, Chairman of the Local Government Association, said: "Over the last decade, England has taken steps towards greater devolution, but areas outside the city regions have remained stuck in the 'devolution slow lane' and the UK remains one of the most centralised countries in the democratic world.

"The forthcoming Levelling Up White Paper provides a real opportunity to turbo-charge the devolution agenda and set out a common baseline of devolved powers and financial freedoms to help to improve the lives of people and businesses right across the country.”

He added: "The pandemic has highlighted the strength of councils' local leadership and the benefits of national and local government working as partners to best serve local communities.

"As we focus on the task of national recovery, now is the right time to strengthen this partnership and bring forward an ambitious new devolution settlement that gives councils the powers and funding they need to address regional inequality, tackle local pockets of deprivation and make towns and communities across England attractive places to live, work and visit.”

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